Eutaw City Council meeting reveals continuing controversy between Mayor and Councilmembers over Carver school, water bills and finances

By; John Zippert, Co-Publisher

The official agenda distributed for the October 23, 2018 meeting of the Eutaw City Council was deceptively short. No new business was listed and under old business was one item on political signs. This should have been a warning that this would be a divisive meeting where issues dividing the Mayor and Council would come forward and be aired in public. The Mayor asked City Attorney Zane Willingham to present a draft ordinance regulating the display of political signs in the City of Eutaw. Members of the City Council had the proposed ordinance in writing but copies were not distributed to the public at the meeting. Council members did not raise many questions or objections to the sign ordinance. Willingham asked for suggestions on size limitations of political signs and Councilman Joe Lee Powell and others volunteered to provide more input. The Democrat secured a copy of the proposed ordinance after the meeting. The ordinance is very strict on the display of political signs in the City. Section 1 of the proposal says: “ No political sign shall be erected, constructed, posted or painted on any utility pole, tree, bench, fence, or awning; nor attached to any city, county, state or federal roadway, directional sign or informational sign. No signs shall be erected, constructed, or posted on any portion of the Greene County Courthouse Square Historic District.” The proposed ordinance goes on to limit signage to the period between qualification and election. There is a penalty of $25.00 per sign, ascribed to the candidate whose name is on the sign and whose sign is left up more than seven days after an election. Several political observers, consulted by the Democrat, were critical of the sign ordinance as being too restrictive and punitive especially in its limitations on placing signs at the Courthouse Square, where political discourse is expected during elections in a democracy.

Mayor and Council disagree on use of school

The Council then shifted to a discussion of the use of the former Carver School facility, which the City has acquired from the Greene County Board of Education and named the Robert H. Young Civic Center. When the City of Eutaw acquired the school, the Christ Temple Church was already operating a used furniture exchange in a portion of the facility. In July, the City Council passed a motion, proposed by Councilwoman Latasha Johnson, that Christ Temple Church be allowed to operate the furniture business at no cost for up to one year while the City formulated policies and procedures for use of the Robert H. Young Civic Center. The Mayor and City Attorney Zane Willingham submitted a letter, in August, to the church saying that they would have to vacate the building and remove their furniture because the resolution adopted by the City Council was invalid and procedurally incorrect because the property was not declared surplus before it was provided “at no cost” to the church group. The letter from the Mayor gave the church until September 15, 2018 to vacate the city property. The Democrat interviewed Ms. Fannie Grantham, church secretary and spokesperson. Grantham also attended and City Council meeting and tried to get an explanation of the Mayor’s actions on behalf of the City. The Mayor and Willingham insisted that the Council must rescind the “improperly constructed resolution” but no alternatives were offered to the church for utilization of the building or other available city buildings for a rental charge. The Council by a vote of 3 to 2 with the Mayor, Abrams and Powell voting in favor and Councilwomen Johnson and Smith opposed. Councilman LaJeffrey Carpenter was absent. Ms. Grantham says the church has received this furniture as a gift from various sources and provides furniture to people who otherwise cannot afford it, for a donation, which goes toward the costs of hauling the furniture. “We have tried to help people who needed furniture to be able to get it; this is not a business, it is a community service,” says Grantham. At the City Council meeting, Mayor Steele said that he was concerned about providing space in a city owned building for a furniture business that was competing with Spiller’s Furniture and other businesses in the City, who pay for business licenses. After receiving the Mayor’s letter to vacate the school, Grantham says several meetings were held to try to work out a solution with the Mayor. “The church and our non-profit – REACH, offered to pay rent for the space and asked the City to make a proposal. The Mayor said that his plans for the school did not include furniture and no other city buildings, including an out building at the Armory were available. He did offer to sell us a building, that he owned downtown, next to the cleaners, for $65,000,” said Grantham. Grantham says Rev. Barton, who the Mayor has employed to operate a youth sports program at the school has locked up the part of the building where the furniture is located and the church has not been able to get in to use it since the October 23rd meeting. Councilwoman Latasha Johnson says, “The Mayor has been wrong from the beginning on the purchase and use of the Carver School. We were supposed to work on a plan with the Greene County Commission to purchase the school and use it more widely for all of Greene County. The way the Mayor has treated the church is unfair. My original proposal was to allow them to stay and use a part of the building, at no rent, until we made policies for its use. The Mayor does not want to work with the Council.” Councilwoman Sheila H. Smith said, “ I do not understand what the Mayor is doing. He insisted on buying a school, we cannot afford. Our water meters and bills are still not updated. We do not have a budget and we have not paid our bills.” The Mayor says that the City Council has been unwilling to work with him on the development of a program for young people at the Carver School. “ We have been providing opportunities for young people and we are planning for more activities going forward.”

Eutaw City Council accepts $372,425 grant from DRA for sewage connection for truck stop site

By: John Zippert, Co-Publisher

At its regular meeting on Tuesday, August 28, 2018, the Eutaw City Council approved a resolution accepting a $372,425 grant from the Delta Regional Authority for a project to extend the city sewage to a site at Exit 40 on Interstate 59/20. Love’s Truck Stop has agreed to construct a full service truck stop with parking for 87 trucks, a convenience store and two fast-food franchises at the site. Love’s Truck Stop estimates that the facility will provide 43 jobs when it is in full operation. The City of Eutaw agreed to extend sewage to the site as a condition for Love’s to bring its facility to the city. The sewage line is estimated to cost $900,000 including required lift stations. Thus far, the City of Eutaw has secured a $400,000 grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) and this grant of $372,425 from DRA, A Federal-State compact serving the Mississippi Delta and Alabama Black Belt region. This is a total of $772,425 in grants pledged towards the cost of the sewage project. The Greene County Industrial Development Authority has pledged to raise or provide as a loan the balance of the funds needed to complete the sewage line extension and secure location and development of the truck stop at Exit 40 on the Interstate. “We have been trying to get this project for a long time and I am pleased that we have secured the funds necessary to bring City sewage services to the site. We appreciate the confidence of the Love’s Truck Stop organization in the City of Eutaw and Greene County. WE feel this is only the beginning of the development of the Exit 40 Interstate exit,” said Mayor Raymond Steele. The City Council also passed a resolution to set up a bank account for the Love’s Project with the Mayor, Councilmen Joe Lee Powell and LaJeffrey Carpenter as signatories. In other actions, the Eutaw City Council:

• approved a name change to Eutaw Quick Food Mart from West End Grocery for an off-premises beer and wine permit; • approved travel for Council members Joe Powell and Sheila H. Smith to attend the 2018 Municipal Leadership Institute and Graduation in Prattville on October 4, 2018; • agreed to review and make changes to the City Personnel Handbook beginning at the next City Council work session; • changed signatories on the City Operating Account by removing Mayor Steele and the Water Clerk, leaving Councilman Joe Lee Powell and adding Councilman LaJeffrey Carpenter; • required all city vehicles to have municipal tags by September 11, 2018 or be parked; several city vehicles including an SUV driven by the Mayor currently have ‘undercover tags’.

Public Comment Period yields discussions on disagreement in the City

In the public comments section of the meeting, numerous citizens of the Cityof Eutaw urged the Mayor and City Council members to work together. Sarah Duncan, long time civil rights and community worker said, “I am tired of reading in the papers and seeing here today that the Mayor and the City Council are not in agreement. I urge you to work together in the interest of the people of Eutaw.” Matthew Williams urged, “The Mayor and the City Council to communicate with each other and work together.” Monty White of Fishburne Avenue raised some issues of drainage saying he had been trying to get resolved since July. The Mayor said that some of the problem was on private property and that the City was not responsible for all problems. Sarah Nickson asked, “Why did I get a water bill with zero usage and then have to pay $70. Something is wrong in the water department. Do you have a budget? Can you explain where the town’s money is going? The Council and the Mayor must work together to solve these urgent problems.” Five members of the City of Eutaw Police Department, in full uniforms and armed said they were concerned about crimes in the city of illegal guns and drugs. “ We want to do our jobs to protect the citizens but when we arrest someone for illegal acts, they said that they will raise a complaint with the City Council and sometimes they say Council members are their relatives. We want to do our jobs but the Mayor and the Council must back us up.” The Mayor said he supported the police and that “It is very serious when the City Council interferes in the day-to-day work of the police and the Mayor.” Councilwoman Latasha Johnson said, “There are two sides to every story including this issue with the police. We need to hear both sides.” The meeting ended without real clarity on how to resolve these issues and how the Mayor, the Council and the residents will come together to solve these festering problems. Our newspaper invites your comments and letters on how we resolve this difference and move forward in a positive and progressive manner.

Eutaw City Council learns that $110,000 remains on Prairie Avenue contract that may be available for other street repairs

At the regular Eutaw City Council meeting on June 13, 2017, Torris Babb, City Engineer for the Prairie Avenue resurfacing project, reported that $110,000 was left of the original $500,000 grant for the project. Babb also indicated that the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) was willing to allow this money to be utilized for other road projects in Eutaw that directly connect to a state highway.
While the roads in Branch Heights, which are in the greatest need of repair, cannot be included in this project, other roads at West End, M and M Subdivision and others that directly connect to a state highway can be considered. Babbs said even pothole repairs on tributary streets could be included. The Mayor and City Council took this report under consideration and will come up with a list of potential projects to negotiate with ALDOT. Babb emphasized that there was some urgency to begin discussions, make plans and contract the work before time expires on the grant.
The Council also considered the payment of bills for the month of May 2017. There was much discussion of the bills and the specific accounts from which they should be paid. Council members requested a meeting of the Finance Committee and a Council Working Session on June 20 to review the City’s bank accounts and the sources and uses of funds coming into the City for operations, capital improvements and other services. The City is not operating with a budget, which defines income sources and uses of funds. Councilwoman Sheila Smith voted against paying the bills. She said, “this is a protest to the way the city is operating.”
Councilman LaJeffrey Carpenter said, “ I tried under the last administration and this one to get a budget, so we would know and could project expenses, and which accounts to use to pay our expenses, but no one wants to make a budget. I have given up raising this as an issue – but the problem remains.”
In other actions, the Council approved travel for the Chief of Police and Assistant Chief to attend statewide conferences on law enforcement. Travel reimbursement for Councilman Carpenter to the League of Municipalities meeting was also approved.
Mayor Raymond Steele reported on needed sewer repairs, including replacement of pumps. The Council approved these expenses to be taken from the Water-Sewer Fund not the Capital Improvement Fund. The Mayor also reported progress on the USDA Loan and Grant water project. Work will resume on the Water Tower after the July 4th Holiday and may take until the end of the year to complete.
The Mayor said he was meeting with the Chair of the County Commission on placement of a power pole, in front of the William M. Branch Courthouse, on a temporary basis during construction of the water tower. The pole has subsequently been placed in the street on the side of the Courthouse, according to the Mayor, at the recommendation of project engineers and Alabama Power Company.
The County Commission and many citizens are not pleased with the placement of the pole in the street and wish that the City and County governments could come together on a better location.

The Mayor also reported that city workers were following behind the water construction contractor fixing streets and curbs, installing new digital self-reporting water meters, clearing drains and doing other finishing and follow-up work. Council members said that the contractor should reimburse the city for this work.
The Mayor said the City’s knuckleboom truck to cut limbs of trees blocking the streets was being repaired and would be put to work as soon as possible to keep up with fast growing grass, weeds and other vegetation. “We have so many problems and requests for street and drainage services but very little money to do the work,” said the Mayor with some degree of frustration. Residents of various areas of the city raised more issues of needed maintenance work during the public comment sessions.
Ms. Deloris Powell of Lock 7 says she was grateful to get the water but that the contractor had left the construction areas and drainage pipes in a mess.
Councilman Joe Lee Powell thanked the “Tommy Summerville Police Support League, Inc.” for donation of a police car for the Eutaw Police Department. Councilwoman Sheila Smith is a leader of the Tommy Summerville Police Support League, which is the charity that holds the license for the Palace Bingo Hall.