City leaders discuss railroad proposal

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Blytheville City Council members met Monday evening and discussed issues ranging from BNSF's request to close a portion of Cherry Street, to the increase in tipping fees, to plans for Waterworks improvements and a proposed new ordinance requiring businesses that deal in second hand goods to log transactions online.

Public Works Committee

The Public Works Committee met with BNSF representatives for a "follow up" regarding their request to close Cherry Street and plans to increase railway speed to sixty miles per hour for trains traveling through the city.

Before hearing from BNSF, committee member R.L. Jones complained that not all of the committee members were notified that BNSF would be at the meeting. Thus, they were not able to notify citizens of the opportunity to follow up on worries they may have.

"Why [weren't] we informed that [BNSF was] going to be here today... so we could have been prepared to ask our constituents out...what do they want us to ask in this meeting," Jones asked the chairman.

Committee member John Musgraves also expressed concern.

"I agree... this is our ward and we have to let our constituents know when there is a meeting going on like this," Musgraves said. "At this point, I want to hear from [BNSF] but I don't want to hear from [BNSF] because my constituents aren't here... it's important for them to know what's going on."

Jones added that even though everyone is welcome at the committee meetings, he felt it was important for local citizens to know about these proposed changes because of a mistrust citizens have with decisions their local officials make.

"A lot of the public is saying that we [are] slipping things in on them and not telling them what's going on," Jones said. "We should've let them know... and that's the only issue I [have] with it. I welcome these gentlemen here."

Chairman L.C. Hartsfield acknowledged the oversight. He also assured the committee that he would not make the mistake again of neglecting to communicate when important guests would attend the meetings for questioning and or follow-ups.

"I accept that responsibility. I accept all the fault in that area. I accept that responsibility, and moving forward that will not happen, " Hartsfield said.

BNSF's Public Affairs Officer, Joe Faust, gave assurances that citizens would not be ignored and he committed to return to Blytheville to engage with the public.

"We can come back again, if it's necessary to go into greater detail with your constituents," Faust said.

Hartsfield added, "We are still several months away from a decision and we will have a public meeting to discuss this further with the public."

"The Federal Railroad Administration has deemed this track in the city of Blytheville to operate up to sixty miles an hour, " said Faust. "While we have the authority to do so, [and] we can do so safely, we're not going to implement that sixty mile an hour speed limit for some time."

He said that currently, trains traveling through the city operate at around forty miles per hour until the changes are implemented. Faust said that he hopes to be invited back to work with the committee and the local citizens in explaining safety measures and what changes and challenges to expect. "Once we get into your community meetings, we'll explain those things in greater detail and hopefully that will address your concerns," Faust said.

Jones asked if there were current technologies and assurances in place regarding track speed and to hold trains accountable for their speed limits.

Faust replied, "Each train [has] equipment on there that monitors [the speed]. It goes to our superintendent of operations...he monitors that. It goes up to the general manger. He monitors that. So we have ways to monitor."

Hartsfield brought up from the January meeting that Cherry Street acts as detour when McHaney and Sawyer are backed up due to railroad operations. For some, the closing of Cherry Street would be an even bigger setback in the mornings and late afternoons. He then directed comments toward Michael Garriga, executive director of state government affairs at BNSF in Memphis.

"The other concerns that we had... was concerning the long delays down on McHaney and Sawyer and Michael is going to address that," Hartsfield said.

"When [the superintendent of operations and I] were talking about some of these issues," Garriga said, "I said, we've got some things in Blytheville we need to discuss. One of the concerns we have is when we start talking about closures, we [have to] talk about thing we want to make sure we do is accommodate the community and lessen the inconveniences as possible."

Garriga said he also focused on delays at various crossings due to switch operations. He said that in order to lessen inconveniences on the citizens, accommodation is key, especially when it comes to scheduling.

"We are going to try to make sure that some of that switching, doesn't occur during peak hours, [like] eight a.m. in the morning, lunch time, five o'clock in the afternoon...when folks are trying to get [kids] to school or trying to get to work on time. We are going to do what we can to accommodate the community," Garriga promised.

In other business before the committee, Public Works Director Mark Key informed that the city's trash tonnage was relatively the same as last year (381.6 tons as compared to 381.01 last year), but the cost was much higher.

"As you can see for 2017, the fees came pretty high on that. [About $16,000] and we had 381 tons. The tons are about the same for both years, but last year [the tipping fees] were eleven thousand. The reason I'm bringing this to yall's attention is because, you know, [Knight'] fees went up $5... so our tipping fees and trash fess are going to be a little more expensive," Key said.

Police and Fire Committee

Blytheville's Police and Fire Committee discussed updating its radio communications and an ordinance proposal by police Chief Ross Thompson that would require electronic recordkeeping by "pawnbrokers, dealers of second hand merchandise and or purchasers of scrap metals, precious metal dealers, and the purchase of gold, silver, and other precious metals."

Thompson said the ordinance, if passed, "Gives me the authority to write a letter to that pawnbroker and say, here's the system, here's how you log onto it. Open your account on this system and [for every business transaction] you will upload [the information] into that system within 24 or 48 hours in accordance with state law."

The system is called "Leads Online" and is a tracking system already used in Arkansas by scrap yards. Failure to follow the guidelines would result in fines and habitual failure to comply would lead to suspension or revocation of their business licenses, permits, or privileges granted by the city. Pawn businesses could not be changed to use the system, according to Thompson since law enforcement would have direct access to their financial records.

The purpose of the electronic recordkeeping, according to Thompson, is to be able to track stolen items online in an efficient way.

"We can track it online, we can run it by the person's name, we can run it by the merchandise. We can [find out] quicker. Because I don't have the men to go out and knock on doors anymore and go through books to see who's pawning what," Thompson explained.

The proposed ordinance does not include garage sales, estate sales, auctions, or donations to non-profit organizations.

Thompson said the ordinance would not require any extra money. He said desires that business license applications to have a check box or a "yes or no" options that asks "are you going to be purchasing second-hand goods for resale? Are you going to be operating as a pawn broker or a pawn dealer, yes or no?" Those that do would receive a letter from the chief outlining the expectations regarding electronic recordkeeping.

Thompson said he had tried to get an ordinance like this in the past, but was met with opposition from a member of the city council, primarily due to their concerns regarding possible negative ramifications to "mom and pop" businesses or even for individuals who lack the technological abilities required to comply. "If they needed some assistance on doing some of this stuff. We would be glad to show them how to do it," he added.

Committee member Barbara Brothers said this proposal would help hold all business accountable to the same rules and it may alleviate any loss of revenue if in fact stolen goods are being sold.

"This is something, I think that can actually help up reduce crime," Thompson added.

Thompson also discussed the need to update the city's FCC license, as well as his desire to increase communication between the different city departments.

Fire Chief Mike Carney also addressed the county. Carney told the committee that Station 1's foundation work has begun. Carney also added that, conditional upon Scott Ebers retirement by the end of the month, the department would have two opening for firefighter and that currently three applicants are being reviewed.

Airport & Utilities Committee

The Airport and Utilities Committee discussed three projects by the water department including replacing filters at the water treatment plant, the addition of a new well and a GPS mapping system for meters and valve locations.

Blytheville's Chief Financial Officer John Callens began by presenting three projects that would be tied to the bonds of the "Public Safety Tax." Those three projects include updates to the filtration system at the Water Treatment Plant, a new well and digitally mapping the meters and valves within the system.

"What the water treatment plan entails is...redoing all our filters and also going from chlorine gas to a liquid bleach, for safety reasons. And that's the process for having to build the bleach room and all that," Callens explained.

"The treatment plant is going to be a big project [set to begin in June 2017 and be completed by summer of 2019]... one of the things there is...we've got six filters that provide water for a large portion of this county. Like I said, we're not just Blytheville. We provide it to Dell. We provide it to Yarbro. We provide to the Northeast Water Association [and] we're a back up for Dogwood," Callens said. "So we can't just shut those filters down and redo them. We'll have to do them one at a time."

The "Well No. 12" project, includes adding another well to the system and making improvements to the electrical system and to other wells. The project is expected to begin in June and be completed by the end of 2018. Digitally mapping all of the department's meters and vales is the least time consuming project of the three. It is expected to be complete before August. However, its completion depends upon how quickly the data gets collected and input into the mapping system.

"At that point in time, we'll have everything we need to start actually gathering the data. From there we will probably hire somebody, part-time," Callens said. [That person] would go around... stand on every valve, put [the location] in the system and it'll be locked forever. They'll go up to every meter and [input the location]. That way we'll have all of that computerized and mapped out within our system."

Callens also mentioned adding a water tower on the south end of the city. However, this project is still only in the discussion phase. Callens is waiting on preliminary plans of action, which is being undertaken by the college. Until then the possible water tower project cannot move forward.

The committee also discussed how the city did not have an emergency number for water. Callens said that the city had one once, but that due to continuous harassments by those who had their water shut off, it was ended. At this time water emergencies, including water shut offs or pipe bursts, are reported to the police department.