One of Ozark Acres new commissioner demands audit before passing budget

Tammy Curtis, Managing Editor

Ozark Acres Suburban Improvement District met on Feb. 20 before a full house with the major intent of the monthly meeting being set to establish the 2024 operating budget. By the end of the meeting, the many things brought up including the lack of adequate numbers regarding revenue, it was determined the board would table the passage of the budget and seek an audit to clarify the amount of money that actually is in the SID accounts. 

Issues within the SID have been ongoing for over 20 years over the district falling into disrepair in all areas of its amenities. This has continued but little, if any has been done to address the issues. The ever changing board of commissioners has yet to solve many of the huge issues facing them, likely because of the vastness of the issues from financial to repair requirements. Some of the previous commissioners have even been elected back on the board, including Lana Irby ad Tom Parsons. Parsons is the one, who as Commissioner,  was in charge of the Vagabond Dam project that never went out for legal bid under state law and has been a continued source of issues to the Acres.

On the heels of the Cherokee Village SID  illegal exaction lawsuit, resident Debra Lumley filed her own against the Ozark Acres SID and other county entities on Sept. 27, 2022. It was similar to the one adjudicated the year prior in the Cherokee Village.

It proved residents were charged and required to pay assessments long after they had paid the value of the amenities off in full, among other issues. This then led to subsequent counter lawsuit by Joseph and Heidi Hall. 

In the end the SID was instructed to formulate a plan to phase out the SID in five years and make plans for what the future would be for the area, whether it be to become a city or any other options the residents decide upon. Little, if any has been done to make this happen.

Three new commissioners have come aboard with high hopes and aspirations to accomplish this for the people. Jeremy Harris, John Halsrud and Della Caetano. They have inherited a lot of uncertainties but wish to serve their communities. 

The first portion of the meeting was a question section from residents. Laura Seibert was concerned with a group text message led by Harris regarding providing information to community members about plans the commissioners planned to vote on later as a group. None of the commissioners answered the text chain. Harris explained that he, as a new commissioner wasn’t aware that he could not send a group text  that it was considered under FOIA laws as an illegal meeting. He said the text, which was read in the meeting, was completely harmless and in line with his duties and apologized. He said the reason for the message was because he had become aware of rumors circulating regarding things the commissioners may or may not have had planned that weren’t accurate. Harris wanted to curtail the activity and not allow rumor mills to add to the many issues the Acres is already facing after the lawsuit.

Questions were also brought up about the legitimacy of Harris actually holding a Commissioner seat due his permanent residency being in Memphis, Tenn. and not having an Arkansas driver’s license. He does have a home and is paying taxes in Ozark Acres. Irby said she had spoke with the SID attorney and that Harris was considered a resident. Harris explained he was a district resident and property owner. It was brought to the attention of the board by this news agency that the SID attorney works for them and perhaps seeking an AG opinion based on the SID bylaws or contacting the Secretary of State’s office to prevent having to go back and change things he has voted on that may be voided if he isn’t legally able to serve. Harris said he was sent a legal response from the attorney stating he was a resident per the bylaws of the SID.

This media agency then asked the commissioners to explain the reason they were avoiding the legal requirement of publication of legal items and bids in a local print newspaper as required by the Arkansas FOIA. As with most of the other things asked, the new commissioners were legitimately not aware which documents were required to be published for the residents and public. They said they weren’t aware they had ceased after Commissioner Lana Irby got back on the board. Prior to this news agency running news stories bout the issues at the SID, the legal publications ran. Irby was the topic of two of the stories in regard to false statements she made publicly regarding the legitimacy (or lack thereof, according to her)  to at least four people in public places about the SRC’s coverage of the issues. The purpose of the questions was to make the new board members aware of the past actions of a board member who was again sitting on the board and to inform them of the requirements for future reference, since the new commissioners seemed to be interested in working for the common good of the SID.  Irby attempted to explain that she had nothing to do with sending the legals as she no longer worked in the office. 

Most of the items of the meeting were routine, but the large crowd became angered many times at a few of the commissioners as they attempted to do things in contrary to statements they had just made.  The new commissioners all seemed to have the interest of bettering Ozark Acres. 

One topic included Caetano speaking about how rapid a vote was made on adding Internet to the clubhouse on such a stretched budget at the last meeting after hearing from people who were not in favor of its She expressed that Harris had stated he could stream the meetings from his home in Memphis and not have to attend. “Everyone needs to be here, if you are going to be on the board, you need to be here,” Caetano said to Harris.

Halsrud suggested putting money aside in an interest bearing certificate of deposit.  This was moments after discussing the formation of a resident group working together toward the goal of either becoming a city, being a city with some SID interaction or any other measure on which they decide in five years.  Residents were not happy because if they opted to place the funds that were earmarked for expenses related to the future option of what to do with the SID, would tie then up and if they were needed immediately and take more time to obtain for expenses. Harris explained the SID has excess funds that would cover the $30,000 requirement to set aside created in the lawsuit settlement and the funds for the CD did not need to come from that. There was no vote and Harris abstained from all topics that he had placed on the agenda until a definite answer regarding his legal status as a resident was determined.

Lana Irby placed an item on the agenda for the possibility of purchasing “road strips” to slow down dangerous speeding in areas of Ozark  Acres. After discussion, it was determined she actually meant rumble strips. However, after bringing it to the board, the subject was lacking any real information for consideration, including a price, photo depictions or even location to purchase the strips. The item was tabled. 

Caetano spoke about repairs to vital street equipment she has experienced, effectively crippling road work in the Acres until it could be approved. This was a result of not having an immediate set discretionary spending amount she can access or write checks on instantly. She complained if something needed purchased she has to wait for approval or even another month to bring it before the board. Caetano, who is also a new board member outlined a detailed plan for roads that need the most urgent care and spoke about the vital need to replace aging culverts. She brought prices and outlined where the culverts should be placed. She said she realized due to funding that they would never be able to repair the roads to what they should be but said repairing the most urgent needs was about all they could do at this point 

Caetano. has been volunteering 40 or more hours a week driving the roads and filling holes by hand with a bucket and shovel, assisting Melinda Dunn, the new employee and other non commissioner volunteers.

Tom Parsons, gave his report on the Lakes and Dams including ways to yet again deal with the erosion issue at the end of the Vagabond Dam. He also showed a very detailed report including photos of where he had repaired swings and a picnic table at one of the parks. This included new hardware with rubber instead of steel on the load bearing and motion portions that will prolong the life of the swing.

Harris report included explaining the installation of the wifi at the clubhouse would allow the SID to rent the facility for meetings, business or community events and would also provide residents an option for their children to access the Internet and a hot-spot for residents. He also explained smart thermostats had been installed that are controlled with a cell phone application. A smart lock was installed to allow non-keyed access to the building with a code that will be changed periodically, along with the password for the wifi changing every six months. He explained a temporary entry code will be given to those who utilize the building besides for SID meetings. 

When it came time to discuss the budget for the year, the numbers from which Halsrud set the information presented to the board was unclear to Caetano. She quickly advised him of this.  She questioned where he obtained the potential income listed on the budget planning slides.  Caetano explained that in an attempt to understand the issues facing Ozark Acres when and after she became a commissioner she had obtained financial documentation including learning that the last audits SID underwent was in 2018. She strongly suggested  SID seek an audit before voting, or even considering passing the 2024 budget. She reasoned to the other commissioners this would allow them to be knowledgeable in the determination of accurate sums regarding  how much money the SID actually has. She said it was the responsible thing to do as commissioners to protect not only themselves, but the residents they were elected to serve. 

Commissioner Parsons immediately began referring them to accountants he knew and speaking of prices. This is the same thing he did with the over $200,000 dam project that was shown on a half sheet of paper when he was on the board the first time The budget was tabled and will be brought up at the next meeting. 

The meeting adjourned around 8:45 p.m.

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