An audience gathered at a Town Hall Meeting in Vilonia Monday night had more questions regarding what some politicians were going to do after leaving office rather than what they intend to do during the last months of their service.
Guest speakers for the event included Senator Gilbert Baker, State Rep. Stephen Meeks, County Judge Preston Scroggin, Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland, Faulkner County Sheriff Karl Byrd, Justice of Peace Steve Goode (the Vilonia area representative on the Quorum Court) and Vilonia Mayor James Firestone. Each was allowed 10 minutes to basically talk about anything. The event was sponsored by the Vilonia Area Chamber of Commerce, and the audience of about 30 people had the opportunity to offer comments and ask questions.
Baker was the first to speak. He talked briefly about term limits, saying he is about to "time out." He also expressed his concerns regarding leadership and Washington politics saying he wished "we could take a little Vilonia values to those in the White House."
Recent legislation, he said, resulted in Arkansas having a balanced budget, tax cuts and fully funded education as well as ended up with a state surplus. He also noted a couple of new changes for 2012 including a tax relief to manufacturing companies regarding utility fees and a tax exemption change regarding sales tax on automobiles.
"Wait until Jan. 1 if you are going to buy a car," he urged. "You can buy a car and pay $3,999 and not have to pay sales tax."
Afterwards, Baker was posed only one question from the audience. He was asked what he plans to do after leaving office. His answer, "get another a job."
Goode kept his remarks very short. The county government, he said, also has a balanced budget. Faulkner County, he said, is "blessed" to have an influx of jobs as a result of the oil and gas operations.
Hiland provided an overview of his staff and his nine months in office. He also talked about the "evil" he has seen while serving, including children abused by family members. While government can regulate some things, he said, "It can’t regulate all problems in our communities." He suggested churches to become more community involved.
While the audience had no questions for him, he left them with one and provided an answer. "Do you know what it takes for evil to prosper?" he offered. "Good men to do nothing."
Byrd told the audience he will be leaving office in 15 months and doesn’t plan to be a "lame-duck sheriff" during the time.
He touched on some new changes in law from the state legislative level that, he said, is going to adversely affect counties, particularly for a future sheriff’s ability "to manage the inmate population and bring costs down," he said. Reduced classifications for crimes, he said, will fill the detention facilities and drain county coffers. For instance, some drug related crimes that did result in felony charges will now be reduced to Class A misdemeanors with a punishment of up to a year in the county jail with the county footing the bill, he added.
"We can’t keep building bigger prisons," he said.
Asking the audience for questions, there was only one. He was asked what he plans to do when he leaves office.
"I’m going to the farm," he said, adding that he has served in law enforcement since he was 21.
Scroggin talked about future plans for the county infrastructure including paving roads and installing new water lines. He predicts, "The focus will be on the criminal justice system for the next eight to 10 years."
With 1,450 miles of county road, he said, all but about 40 are paved. It’s an ongoing job to try to keep them in good shape, he added.
Plans are in the works, he said, also to install a water line from Heber Springs to the eastern part of the county.
"Water is fixing to be a big issue here in the next 20 years," he also said.
The audience giggled when Meeks said as a senior member of the " freshman class," that he has advantages.
"I get a better parking place," he said, jokingly. On a serious note, though he said he has a first pick on committees and plans to opt for the budget committee. In conclusion, he said that he wants to hear from his constituents regarding their concerns and desires.
Audience member Buck Gunnet posed a question to him regarding a second mention of $90 million in state surplus. "I’ve heard a couple of you talk about a state surplus," Gunnet said. "I’m a rancher and it’s a number I can’t really calculate. How do you plan to get it back to us?"
Both Meeks and Baker weighed in on the answer saying the money, by law, can only be divided between government agencies, placed in a "rainy day" fund or used for a one-time project.
Firestone was the last to speak. His primary focus was on the devastation the city has faced in 2011 and the sense of a unified community spirit, he said, that has risen from it. First there was a tornado, Firestone reminded. After the tornado, he said, the rains came and created drainage problems.
"It (the tornado) will leave a mark on us forever," he said. "There was loss of life and we lost some buildings but this brought us together and made us stronger."