Citing health, Smole resigns from council

Thursday, October 14, 2021
File photo

Laura Jo Smole has resigned from the Eureka Springs City Council.

Mayor Butch Berry announced Smole’s resignation at the council’s regular meeting Monday night, reading Smole’s resignation letter to the public. In the letter, Smole writes that she is resigning from her Ward 1, Position 2 seat effective immediately. It’s been an honor to serve the people of Eureka Springs, Smole writes.

“The amazing and diverse community is close to my heart,” Smole writes. “Making this decision was not taken lightly nor without deep reflection. My effectiveness as a council person would not have been possible without the support of the city department and their staff, especially those whose offices are located in City Hall.”

Laura Jo Smole

Berry said Smole resigned for health reasons and will be missed at the council table.

“I know our thoughts and prayers are with her at this time. I hope … this will allow her a chance to sit back and recover,” Berry said.

Council members Harry Meyer and Autumn Slane said they were sad to hear Smole’s news, and Berry described the process of appointing someone to her position. Berry said the council must elect a new member after receiving resumes from interested citizens who live in Smole’s ward. Council member Terry McClung asked if the item could be added to the agenda for the council’s next meeting and city clerk Ann Armstrong said it’s already on there by state law.

“I’m just making a note for the public out there who’s interested and who lives in that area to start thinking about if they would like to be on city council to start putting a resume together and an application and submit it to city hall and we’ll bring it to city council at the next meeting,” Berry said. “Well, we won’t have those ready, but we’ll certainly go through the process.”

“It happens at the next meeting,” Armstrong said.

“We don’t have all the applications by next meeting,” Berry said.

Berry asked city attorney Tim Weaver about the next course of action and Weaver said the council must vote to accept Smole’s resignation before appointing someone to her position.

“So at the next meeting, it will be brought up to the council to accept the resignation and at that point there will be two weeks for people to submit … their application,” Berry said.

Also at the meeting, the council held a public hearing for the Eureka Springs Transit System. Transit director Ken “Smitty” Smith said transit was on unsteady ground at the beginning of 2021. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was in full swing, Smith said, but the transit system hadn’t received much help from the federal government.

At the time, Smith said, transit’s Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT) point of contact was “slow on the ball” and the reimbursements that were submitted had not been fulfilled. Transit was assigned a new point of contact in January 2021, Smith said, who caught up with the past reimbursement claims so the city could receive those funds.

Starting in June 2020, Smith said, the CARES Act provided 100 percent of the reimbursements for the administration and operating expenses. The funding will continue through December 2021, Smith said. Transit was also granted lost revenue funding, Smith said, after ridership dropped dramatically across the country because of COVID-19.

“The CARES Act provided funding to make up for the lost revenue that we would have probably received through ticket sales,” Smith said. “Through the lost revenue, we were able to recoup $116,058.88. This was done by comparing the total of fare revenue between 2020 and 2019.”

The CARES Act also gave 100 percent of the reimbursements on capital expenses in 2020, Smith said. He said transit ordered two buses and two vans.

“However, due to the problems with the automotive industry, we have yet to receive those vehicles,” Smith said. “Last March, I asked ArDOT when to expect them. I was told six months to a year. Now, they cannot give me an answer.”

Smith said ridership has increased in 2021. Through July, Smith said, transit has seen a 14 percent increase in overall income and a 7 percent rise in ridership from 2019. There was a slowdown in August when the COVID-19 virus resurged, Smith said.

“Was it the virus or had everyone who wanted out got out? It is hard to say,” Smith said.

In 2021, Smith said, transit was awarded $277,922 in capital expenses. Those funds aren’t part of the CARES Act, he said, so they are subject to the 80/20 match obligation.

“With these funds, we are buying one more trolley,” Smith said.

He said the bids were opened on Sept. 24 and transit awarded the bid to Hometown Trolley, the builder of the city’s last nine trolleys, for $234,047.

“We were originally awarded $250,000 for this trolley, but the bid came in below that award,” Smith said.

Once the trolley, buses and vans arrive, Smith said, transit’s fleet will be up to date.

“All vehicles are in the federal interest, meaning they are in their useful life,” Smith said. “I don’t see the need to purchase a vehicle for at least the next three years.”

Smith said transit has also ordered a Toyota Camry hybrid vehicle for $27,992 and requested funding for 10 additional benches.

“We have had a few destroyed by auto accidents and these benches with the Eureka Springs Transit engraved on them cost $680 each,” Smith said. “We requested $7,500 for these benches which should cover the cost of the benches and freight costs.”

These expenses require an 80/20 match, Smith said, so transit will pay $53,907.80.

Looking ahead to 2022, Smith said, he is assuming the federal government will return to an 80/20 match on administrative costs and a 50/50 match on operating funds. Smith requested $351,610 in administrative expenses, including salaries for supervisors, insurance, advertising, physicals and other administrative costs. The match obligation is $70,322, Smith said.

Smith said transit is budgeting $751,500 for operating expenses, including driver, mechanic and customer service representative salaries, fuel, vehicle maintenance, uniforms and building supplies and maintenance.

“From this number, we subtract our fare revenue, which I have guesstimated at $233,600,” Smith said. “This leaves an amount of $517,900.”

Of that amount, Smith said, the federal government will pay 50 percent, or $258,950. Transit will be on the hook for the remaining 50 percent, Smith said.

Combining capital, administrative and operational match obligations, Smith said, transit is left with $384,856 to pay. Transit will receive $167,000 from Transit Public Trust Fund provided by the state of Arkansas, Smith said, leaving $217,256 for transit to fund.

“We do that with our parking lot revenue, ad sales and our historic tram tours,” Smith said. “The tram tours continue to be a very popular attraction and many guests enjoy the tour.”

McClung asked if transit has increased its ticket prices and Smith said that hasn’t happened yet.

“I think next year, our tram tour will probably go up but as far as fare revenue and trolley tickets, they’ve remained the same for the last five, six years,” Smith said. “I don’t see an increase in that.”

In other business, the council approved an ordinance prohibiting new tourist lodging and an ordinance describing the protocol for removing members from city commissions, both on third and final readings.

The council’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 25, at the Auditorium.

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