Greetings, Van Buren County!
So much has been happening that I haven’t released an update in a while. This update will cover the first half of 2020. From hazy days with dust from the Sahara Desert to COVID-19, 2020 has certainly been challenging.
VBC has faced some challenges with yet another extremely wet Spring which brought some significant flooding to parts of the County. We are still working to provide proper drainage on County Roads which is in itself an expensive endeavor. Some of the large culverts needed to complete drainage projects can run over $4,000.00 each. We replaced 18 culverts on one road alone (Clella Circle) as well as many throughout the county. We will not let up until the system of Van Buren County Roads can handle a significant rainfall without washing out.
Several road improvement projects have been completed and several more are coming up this year. Many may wonder why a particular road is chosen while another road is left waiting. The answer is quite simple. I have been making a determination based on how many roads we can afford to improve and how often we have to go make repairs to the road, not counting simple maintenance.
We received a grant to improve Archey Road which connects the Alread Community with the Chimes Community. The road will be widened in some spots, drained off properly, and built up to carry heavy traffic. Next year, a two lane bridge will replace the long, narrow, one-lane bridge which is currently in use. The bridge steel was acquired at no cost to the county through the ARDOT Used Bridge Steel Program. Archey Road should prove to be a great asset to VBC for years to come.
Both the Archey Road Project and the Peyton Mtn. Road Project will be fed from the North Quarry which Van Buren County owns. We hope to have the South Quarry open soon to feed projects in the southern reaches of the county. Having supplies closer to the project enables us to finish quicker and to save a great deal of money in transportation costs.
We are working feverishly to mow and brush as many roads as possible. The county is blessed with an excellent crew at the Road Department. When you see them out and about, please honk your horn and wave at them. They deserve our appreciation.
There has been a lot of discussion about the November elections and what will change due to COVID19.
First and foremost, if you feel unsafe due to COVID19 to go to a public place to vote, you may request an absentee ballot. Arkansas has a system in place which verifies the voter and should give great confidence that there will be no voter fraud in the process. Personally, I am hesitant of mail-in voting as a national policy. However, with the system in place in Arkansas and in Van Buren County, I am comfortable. The choice is yours. You MUST make your choice in advance and you CANNOT change your mind later. If you choose an absentee ballot, you must cast your ballot in that fashion. There is no crossing back and forth in the same election cycle. This, in itself, helps to give me great confidence in the process. If you have any questions, call the office of Voter Registration at 745-VOTE (8683).
Secondly, early voting is an option of increasing popularity. We have a plan in place to route voters through the Courthouse Annex, to socially distance the machines and the voters, and to provide a sanitary means of casting your ballot. We plan to have more machines available for early voting and to make your experience very pleasant.
Election Day voting will be an option as well. The machines will be distanced and there will be many more machines in use in November than were in use at the primary. More and more counties are moving to vote centers vs precinct polling places. VBC already has the first vote center experience behind us so we know where we need to improve and how. We look forward to providing a great experience on election day in November.
COVID19 brought the county some difficult budget challenges. We have kept no secrets about how tightly the county operates. I am quite proud that VBC has a low millage rate (3 mills) on property owners with which to operate the county. Having a low millage rate increases our reliance on other means of revenue. Most of those means took at least somewhat of a hit while others took a significant hit. We managed through the process and ensured the county’s finances remained solid.
Unemployment for VBC increased due to COVID19. April showed Van Buren County to have an unemployment rate of 11.6%. Double-digit unemployment is never good, however, it is not VBC’s highest recorded rate which was 13.8% after the closing of the Pilgrim’s Pride Processing Plant. Hopefully, we can reduce the unemployment rate in the months to come.
As of the writing of this article, Van Buren County has 4 active positive cases of COVID19. Many ask me where the people are located, who are impacted, how they acquired it, where they have been, etc. and those answers are not available. I know that other states provide more details than Arkansas but that is something that is simply beyond my control. Van Buren County obviously knows how to protect itself as you squashed the curve and brought the numbers down to zero for quite some time. There is no way to keep the number at zero indefinitely if we live our lives. Do what you can. Protect yourself in a manner that gives you confidence against the virus.
I attended the annual Archey Fest celebration this weekend. I look forward to the Alread Fireworks show which is so impressive for such a small community. I also look forward to the Fairfield Bay Fireworks Extravaganza every year. Van Buren County has so much to offer. With so much available to bring us together, let us not be separated by an issue that will be history soon enough: masks.
I have seen so many acts of selflessness within the county just in the short time that I have been your County Judge. You came together to honor Devin Wooten when he fell to childhood cancer. You came together to honor a fallen officer when he was escorted through the county. You came together to honor healthcare workers, and to offer assistance to the elderly during the shutdown. Over and over again, VBC never ceases to amaze. Your heart is bigger than your body.
I am troubled at the division over something as simple as masks. I’ll be the first to admit that I hate wearing one. If I can be socially distanced and the choice is mine, I will choose not to wear one. However, when the rules state that a mask is required, or that a social distance of six feet isn’t achievable, I will wear one, as we all should. We are living history as this event will certainly be taught in History Class for generations to come. Sometimes, it isn’t about me, but about others in my midst. Even though my personal fear of COVID19 is virtually nonexistent, I do fear for those who aren’t as fortunate as myself. I fear for those with lung issues, with diabetes and compromised immunities. If condescending myself to wearing a mask for a few moments makes a difference, then so be it. If “masking up” opens up the economy and puts more money in your wallet, then I am all in. On the other side of that coin, if I am wearing a mask and my neighbor is not, I need to worry about protecting myself, and not so much worry about making my neighbor angry. Ill feelings and lost friendships have the potential to last a whole lot longer than masks will ever be an issue. It’s time to celebrate our freedom. Let us all make wise personal choices while allowing others to make their own choices as well.
During the year we have celebrated many different groups of “essential” personnel. Today, I would like to celebrate you. You are the life blood of this community. You bring a difference of opinions and ideas. You work hard as a diverse group to provide and to make things happen. All to often, people are left out. No matter what profession you are employed, YOU ARE ESSENTIAL. It takes us all to make a healthy community. You are the ones who set an example for the whole state on so many levels. Thank you, Van Buren County! You keep on keeping on. You are what patriotism should be.
God bless. Have a safe and happy Independence Day!
Dale James, Van Buren County Judge