Eutaw City Council concerned about financial recordkeeping and reporting

At its regular meeting on Tuesday, September 12, 2017, the Eutaw City Council was unable to get a second and vote on a motion made by Councilman Joe Lee Powell to pay bills for the month of August.
Three Council members present, LaTasha Johnson, Jeffrey Carpenter and Sheila H. Smith expressed misgivings about paying the bills without a more detailed financial statement and record of the City’s finances and bank accounts. Councilman Bennie Abrams was absent and was not present to second or vote on the motion. Had Abrams been present, the motion may have resulted in a tie vote on paying the bills.
Councilwoman LaTasha Johnson said she sent Mayor Steele a letter asking for specific information about bills and bank accounts especially the funds coming from electronic bingo. Councilman Carpenter said he has been pushing for many years for the city to have a budget and pay bills based on a plan and a budget.

Mayor Steele said the City of Eutaw did not have its records in proper form to provide the reports and budget that were being requested. Steele said Council members could come to City Hall “at any time and request that the City Clerk show them any bills, bank statements or other financial data they want to see.”
Steele said that he had discussed this with James Gardner, the City’s CPA and accounting firm and was advised that additional funds were needed to train and support City Hall staff to enter information in the computer system to generate the needed reports. Steele said that he would invite Gardner to speak with the Council at a work session on Monday, September 18, 2017 to explain the situation.
At the Council Work Session, Gardner explained that the last audit for the City of Eutaw was done by him in FY2012 and that a Financial Compilation Report and Financial Statement was done for fiscal year 2014, through September 30, 2014. There have been no financial statements or reports done by his firm for the ensuing fiscal years of 2015, 2016 and 2017. Bank statements and files of receipts and expenditures are on file in the City Hall, which could be used to construct a financial statement and reports.
Gardner said that he would send an estimate of the cost to do these unaudited compilation statements by the next City Council meeting. Gardner said it would cost $4,000 to $7,000 to train City Hall staff to enter financial information in a modified QuickBooks system, for the city’s multiple accounts, starting October 1, 2017. Once this training was done and the system was properly maintained he could do an audited statement for the FY2018, which ends September 30, 2018.
Mayor Steele said that he would bring a report from the CPA firm on recordkeeping, accounting and financial reporting to the next meeting for the Council to make a formal decision.
At the Council Work Session, Mayor Steele reported that the City water system expansion project was moving toward conclusion. More new digitized self-reporting water meters will still be installed, including individual meters in Carver Circle taking the place of a single master meter.
Steele said the new water tank would be painted by the end of October and put into operation by the end of the year. This would allow the power pole to be moved from its temporary location in the street near the Courthouse to its permanent place. The Mayor also indicated that the water line contractor would return to fix other areas that were affected by the construction.
The Mayor indicated that the City’s knuckle-boom truck to cut and remove trees from city roadways was in the shop and would require $18,000 to $20,000 to repair. He reported that both City backhoes were also in the shop for repair and that the city workers were doing their best to pick up branches piled up on the side of roads and streets.
Steele said, “Our equipment is very old and in need of repair and upgrading. We are going to do our best to prepare for the Tour of Homes, scheduled for October 7 and 8, in Eutaw.”
At the September 12 Council meeting, Councilwoman Sheila H. Smith confronted Mayor Steele and tried to make a motion to deny the Mayor the use of a new 2017 Tahoe, he uses for conducting city business. Smith said the vehicle could be better used by the Police Department.
Steele said he needed the car to show visitors interested in the community, a positive image of the community. He also said he needed a reliable vehicle to travel to meetings to seek resources for the city. The Mayor suggested that Smith was taking these actions against him, as personal retribution, because he had requested that she turn in her city issued cell phone. The Mayor was successful in ruling the motion out-of-order but the issue lingers and may come up again in future meetings.

Alabama Power explains placement of power pole in the street

City & Benison.jpg

Shown above l to r: Councilpersons Bennie Abram, LaTasha Johnson, Shelia Smith, Mayor Raymond Steele, Sheriff Jonathan Benison, Mrs. Janice Benison, Councilman LaJeffery Carpenter and Councilman Joe L. Powell. Mayor Steele and City Council gives recogntion to Sheriff Benison.

At the Eutaw City Council meeting held Tuesday, August 22, 2017, Mayor Raymond Steele asked Dan Bott of Alabama Power to explain how the power pole got placed in the middle of the street alongside the courthouse. Bott stated that Alabama Power could not obtain an easement to place the pole on county property while the new water tank was being installed. He noted that a re-routing to place it on other property would have been too costly. “We had to consider the other hundreds of customers who are also served by that same line. That coverage extends to customers in the Knoxville and Jena communities,” he said.
According to Bott, it would have cost approximately $200,000 to re-route the line; placing it in the street, near the construction, cost about $30,000. Mayor Steele stated that this cost is included in the grant. It was noted that the work on the water tank should be completed by the end of September and the power pole will be returned to its original position.
At the opening of the meeting, Mayor Steele requested the removal of the agenda item which proposed a liquor license for John’s of Eutaw. A motion for the same was presented and passed. No explanation was given for withdrawing the item.
Councilwoman LaTasha Johnson noted errors in the previous minutes and asked that statements erroneously attributed to her be removed.
Councilman Joe Powell asked that travel mileage for Deadra Thomas be adjusted to the correct rate.
Since there was no old business on the agenda, the council approved the bills presented.
In his report, Mayor Steele again stated that the water tank would be completed in September, but there is still some work to be done on the water lines. According to Steele, by September, the city should be ready to read meters electronically. “Software will be installed next week and the staff will be trained,” he said.Councilman Powell stated that he does not want the city to cut grass if the workers will not remove the papers that get cup up. He said that limbs are also cut and left on site. Mayor Steele responded saying that the city has limited staff and cannot perform pick-up duty.
Councilwoman Johnson noted that there are similar problems on Kirksey, regarding cutting grass, papers and other debris and just leaving that there. Johnson also presented the sewer concerns for the residents of Lock 7. The mayor responded saying that there are no funding sources available for sewer grants at this time, until the water project is completed.
In the closing business, the Mayor and City Council presented a special recognition to Greene County Sheriff Jonathan Benison for his financial support of bingo funds to the city. Sheriff Benison and his wife were present to receive the award.
In public comments, Luther Winn, CEO of Greenetrack, Inc., gave a summary presentation on the initial purpose of the Bingo Bill passed by the community in 1973. He said that bingo was approved by the people with the expectation that significant resources would go to the primary institutions in the county. These included the school system, the first responders (Volunteer Fire Departments, Ambulance Service, E911) and the hospital. Winn noted that when there was only one bingo facility in the county and locally owned, the Greene County Hospital received approximately $120,000 a year in bingo funds. Now with five bingo establishments, hardly any bingo funds go to the hospital, which is struggling to remain open and in dire need of operating and upgrading funds. Winn distributed documents which supported his statements.

February Eutaw City Council meetings deal with merger of housing authorities, vicious dogs and buying new vehicles

city-councilThe Eutaw City Council met on February 14 and 28 to conduct business. The main issues dealt with were the merger of the Eutaw and Greene County Housing Authorities, implementing ordinances on vicious dogs in the city and the leasing of three new SUV’s for use by the police and mayor.
The City of Eutaw has a Housing Authority (EHA) that handles Carver Circle and other housing within the city. The Greene County Housing Authority (GCHA) was established to develop housing in the county. The GCHA administers the 200 houses in Branch Heights. Branch Heights was annexed into the city of Eutaw in the early 2000’s.
HUD which funds both authorities – EHA and GCHA – wrote to both housing authorities, starting in October of 2015, that they needed to consolidate their staffs and operations into one housing authority serving the area. The two five member boards have been meeting for several months to work out a merger planning which would keep a ten member board appointed by both the City and the County Commission.
James “Dee” Powell who is the chairperson of the Eutaw Housing Authority Board says, “Our boards have agreed upon a merger plan, that preserves a board appointed by the City and the County; agrees to preserve the employment of both directors and the staff and leaves open the possibility of building other housing in Forkland, Boligee, Union and other communities in Greene County beyond Eutaw.”
Powell says that once Mayor Raymond Steele was elected in October, “The Mayor decided that since all the public housing was in Eutaw, that he, as Mayor of Eutaw, should name all of the members of the new merged housing authority. He insisted on this even though three of the Commissioners from Districts 1, 2 and 3 take in parts of the city as well.”
Mayor Steele says that he is following the law, governing housing authorities and that the only authorities permitted are those serving cities and thus he has the power to appoint all of the board members.
At the February 14 meeting, the Eutaw City Council, at the recommendation of its Attorney, Ken Aycock, agreed to seek an Alabama State Attorney General’s opinion on the statute governing housing authorities and who had the legal rights and power to appoint the new merged housing authority board.
At the February 14th meeting, the Eutaw City Council learned that Mayor Steele had removed some of the EHA board members appointed by former Mayor Hattie Edwards in the final weeks of her term. These appointments were never brought before the Eutaw City Council because the Council did not have a quorum in its final October meeting before power shifted to the newly elected Mayor Steele and council members.
At the February 14 meeting, the Mayor said he replaced Ms. Faye Tyree and Ms. Janet Cockrell who were appointed to the EHA by Mayor Edwards. He replaced Ms. Tyree with Ms. Bertha Cockrell. When Ms. Tyree confronted Mayor Steele about her letter of termination, he said that her appointment was never made official in the minutes, so he could dismiss her because she was never officially appointed. The Mayor also suspended funding from the West Alabama Regional Commission for a part-time position that Ms. Tyree was serving in, which meant she lost her position.
Things were further confused because newly elected Councilwoman LaTasha Johnson was serving as an EHA residential board member until her election to the City Council.
Mayor Edwards tried to replace her on the board before she officially resigned.
At the February 14th meeting, Dee Powell said he requested to be put on the agenda to discuss the board merger but was not placed on the agenda. After some discussion, the Mayor and Council agreed to place him on the agenda for the February 28 meeting.
At the February 28 meeting, Dee Powell, who is the EHA Chair explained the efforts to merge the housing authorities and accused Mayor Steele of bad faith in saying that if things didn’t go the Mayor’s way then there would be no merger. Powell also questioned the Mayor’s role in changing the EHA board members without consulting the board. “We need to look out for the welfare of the tenants of these housing developments,” said Powell.
Mayor Steele said he was just trying to do things according to the law and awaiting the Attorney General’s opinion on the legality of the merger. The Mayor asked the City Council to approve the selection of Jackie Allen to replace LaTasha Johnson, as the resident member, and Bertha Hunter to replace Veronica Jones. The City Council approved these changes.

Vicious dogs ordinance

Another contentious issue came up about vicious dogs in the city. After a Thanksgiving incident where Channel Glenn’s pit bull dogs attacked two city residents and sent them to the hospital for care, the City Attorney sent Glenn a letter, which contained the City ordinance on vicious dogs. The ordinance states that “the dogs must be kept in an enclosure that is 300 feet from any public park, playground, public building or residence of another”. The letter indicates that Ms. Glenn’s dogs are in violation of this city ordinance,
In the public comment section of the City Council meeting, Ms. Glenn angrily charged that the City had “inflated” the ordinance since she received it some time ago and asked for an investigation. She also argued that people had breached her fence and that was why the dogs attacked them. When the police chief tried to counter her arguments, she stormed out of the meeting.
In other business, the Eutaw City Council approved the purchase of three sewage pumps for the lift stations at Boligee, Lower Gainesville Road and the Lagoon. The pumps will cost $5-8,000 each.
The City also approved the leasing of three new SUV’s for $2,300 a month. Two are for the Eutaw Police Department and one for the Mayor. Several Council members including Sheila Smith and LaJeffrey Carpenter were opposed to the Mayor receiving one of the new cars. The City Council also approved the sale of old vehicles after they are advertised.

Eutaw water tower taken down, first step in water improvement project

water-towerAt the January 10, 2017 Eutaw City Council meeting, Mayor Raymond Steele announced that the old city water tower behind City Hall was taken down as the first step in a $3.1 million water improvement project financed by USDA Rural Development.
The 250,000 gallon water tower, constructed in 1921 and deemed by engineers as too costly to repair, will be replaced with a new water tower as part of the project. The contractor with a large crane dismantled the tower in less than two days.
The City Council approved paying bills for December 2016 with the exception of bills from Babbs Engineering. The City informed Babbs that his contract was terminated around Thanksgiving but he did not receive notice until the first week of December and he had already been working for another month. There is also a large outstanding bill for engineering on the Prairie Avenue resurfacing project, which can be reimbursed from the ALDOT that contracted for this work.
The Eutaw City Council approved a resolution amending the Prairie Avenue agreement with ALDOT to include paving other side streets that adjoin Prairie Avenue.
The City Council also agreed in principle with a request from Mayor Steele to involve HERO Inc., a non-profit housing development organization from Greensboro (Hale County) in the development of houses on land on Harris Avenue in Eutaw.
The Council also approved holding a “Severe Weather Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday” later in the year for the sale of generators, batteries, flashlights and other supplies for emergencies. The projected dates for this holiday were not announced. The Council tabled a listing of excess vehicles for sale because the full list is still under development.
Councilwoman Sheila Smith requested a working meeting of the Public Safety Committee to discuss police procedures and needs. The meeting was scheduled as part of a working session on January 24 at 5:30 PM before the next regular City Council meeting.
In the public comment session two citizens raised complaints. Charles Swanson of Eutaw complained about ambulance service for his wife and Channel Glenn complained that people were trying to harm or steal her dogs, “which are just like my children” she argued. She also questioned the use of HERO Inc. as an effective housing developer.
The Mayor said he would look into both complaints. Steele told Ms. Glenn that her pit-bull dogs were of great concern to other residents of the community who were afraid of the dogs attacking them. He also said that he was going to have to enforce the ordinances against violent dogs that were not properly restrained.

Countywide meeting held to support and defend Greene Co. Constitutional Amendment 743 for ‘electronic bingo’

groupMore than 250 people attended Tuesday’s countywide meeting at the National Guard Armory to discuss the recent decision of the Alabama Supreme Court deeming ‘electronic bingo’ in Greene County to be illegal. This decision made on an appeal by the State of Alabama on the 2010 raid which confiscated 825 electronic bingo machines from Greenetrack.The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that it has defined bingo as a game of chance played on paper cards and that the electronic bingo machines used at Greenetrack and other gaming facilities in Greene County are “illegal slot machines”.
This decision comes despite the 2003 vote by Greene County residents to enact Constitutional Amendment 743 authorizing electronic bingo. Greene County voters approved this amendment by an overwhelming vote.
Luther “Nat” Winn, CEO of Greenetrack presided over the meeting and introduced the county and legislative officials who spoke.
Winn said, “This decision by the Supreme Court is an illegal decision, they went against a Constitutional Amendment that we that we worked hard and legally secured for Greene County. The voters of Greene County have lost our basic right to vote and make decisions to help ourselves and build our county. The Supreme Court is taking 300 jobs from Greene County and millions of dollars of support for county government, municipal government and vital services. They have given us nothing in return. We are not going to accept this decision, we are going to fight it.”
Mayor Raymond Steele of Eutaw said,” This is going to be devastating for Eutaw and Greene County. There is no growth or new business in our area besides gaming. If the Supreme Court and the State take away bingo what will we have left. Do not touch Greenetrack until you bring us some jobs and revenues to replace it.”
Elmore Patterson, CEO of the Greene County Health System, warned that the hospital and nursing home would be forced to close without the jobs and revenues from bingo.
Hodges Smith speaking on behalf of the Greene County Firefighters Association said, “ We got tired of selling hamburgers and fish sandwiches to support our voluntary fire departments in Greene County. We supported Amendment 743 and went to the Alabama Legislature to get it passed because of the revenues that have been generated to support 14 fire departments across the county.”
Dr. Carol P. Zippert, District 1 School Board members said, “I cannot speak for the Board, but I can speak for the children of Greene County. We have not received enough funds from bingo but what we have received has helped the children of the county. This is a voting rights issue; the Alabama Supreme Court is taking our votes away. I had hoped that we had made some progress since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s but it seems that our children will have to fight the same fights all over again to protect our rights.”
Lester Brown, Greene County Commissioner said, “ We need to support Amendment 743. It provides that matching funds for roads and bridges in our county. It provides jobs for our people. The Supreme Court wants us to cross a bridge with out the money to build it – that won’t happen!”
State Representatives Ralph Howard and Artis McCampbell who represent Greene County in the Alabama Legislature also spoke. “We have Constitutional Amendment 743, what else do we need to have? We need to stand up for the rule of law… it is worth fighting for,” said Howard.
Kennard Randolph, Blackbelt Outreach Coordinator for Congresswoman Terry Sewell said the Congresswoman was supportive of gaming in Greene County and would help in any way she could.
State Senator Bobby Singleton addressed the group and said he had been involved in the original debates over bingo in Greene County and helped insert the language for ‘electronic bingo’ in the legislation for the Constitutional Amendment referendum in 2003.
“This whole fight against bingo is a conspiracy between AG Luther Strange, the Republican Supreme Court and the Republican Party. There is ex parte communications between Luther Strange and the Supreme Court. The Republican Party wants to cut out all possible sources of campaign funds for the Democrats. They went after the teachers (AEA), unions, state employees, trial lawyers and gaming, “ said Singleton.
Singleton said he serves on the Governor’s Task Force on Gaming and he learned, “That this issue of electronic bingo in Greene County stands between the state giving the Native Americans exclusive rights to gaming in the state; a state lottery and other issues. I am fighting for the people of Greene County, not just Greenetrack. We need jobs at livable wages and revenues from gaming to support needed government and community services.”
Near the end of the meeting, Probate Judge, Judy Spree asked Winn what was his plan of action. Winn said, “ We are going to fight to protect bingo but if you know people in high places then contact them and ask them to help Greene County.
Others suggested using social media like Facebook to spread the word of the impacts of the Supreme Court’s decision on Greene County people. A more detailed strategy of resistance and fighting back was left to future meetings.
Noticeable absent from this countywide meeting was Sheriff Benison, who is the county official who supervises bingo under Amendment 743, makes the rules and administers the funds coming from bingo. Also missing were representatives of the owner-operators of the other bingo parlors in Greene County – Green Charities, Rivers Edge and Frontier.