Greetings, Van Buren County,
Happy New Year! 2020 certainly left us all faced with numerous challenges, mostly due to COVID-19. From shortages of sanitizer and toilet paper, to shortages of coins and bleach, 2020 was a monumental year for the history books. Even with the shortages, Van Buren County has never been short of community spirit and hope. It was that spirit of community and hope which got us through one of the most challenging and difficult years in memory.
Jobs and unemployment
Van Buren County’s unemployment rate as of October 2019 was a very good 4.3 percent. With the economic slowdown due to COVID-19, by April 2020 the unemployment rate had skyrocketed to 11.6 percent. The latest numbers available are from October 2020 which show Van Buren County with a current unemployment rate of 6.7 percent.
In spite of the tough labor market, my office has been working to attract more jobs to the county. Hopefully, before summer, we can announce a new small business. All job growth is good.
I have spoken with other developers, as well, from projects ranging from a few jobs to over a hundred. The economic slowdown has not slowed the efforts of my office to work hard to attract new jobs.
Work continues to improve the system of county roads. Currently, the county is working on two very large grant funded projects ($150,000) on Peyton Mountain Road and Archey Road. Both of the projects are very large and time consuming. Due to the size of the two projects, work on the following roads will be deferred until the first of 2021: Rumley, Rex, Pinewood, Lawrence, Flat Rock, and Morningside.
The county opened up its third quarry in the south part of the county near Morganton/Fairbanks. Having multiple quarries gives us the ability to improve productivity through shorter trips from the source to the destination. Base material will be sourced from the closest quarry to the jobsite. Finish material will be sourced from the Formosa Quarry due to the excellent quality of the rock.
120,000 tons of material was produced and distributed in 2020. The difference in price, with all costs included, is a savings of almost $6 per ton. Producing our own materials has enabled the county to continue improvement projects even though the overall budget has been drastically reduced.
VBC applied for and received a commitment for enough used bridge steel to replace the bridge on Archey Road. A good bridge is being widened and replaced in Montgomery County. We were scheduled to receive the steel early this year, but the project was delayed. The Archey bridge project will have to be rescheduled for the year 2022.
Many projects are being planned for 2021. VBC now has road data which is gathered electronically through sensors on county road vehicles. Road improvement projects are being scheduled based on unbiased data. The county’s tax dollars are truly being spent on the county’s areas of greatest need.
Because of decreased revenues, the county will not be applying chip/seal to newly improved roads. The money and effort will be directed to the resurfacing of existing chip/sealed and/or paved roads to maintain the county’s investment.
Sales taxes have been surprisingly strong through the pandemic. By the original ballot for the one-cent hospital tax which expired in October, surplus collections went to the county. The amount of surplus collections were placed into a reserve account and earmarked to subsidize the payment of the library. The library is now secure for years to come as VBC has the means to honor the original payment plan. The county’s bond rating will remain strong.
The county continues to improve in efforts of being truly transparent. Quorum Court meetings are available for view on Facebook at Van Buren County TODAY. An independent study ranks Arkansas counties by their level of transparency. My personal goal is for VBC to break into the top 10 in 2021 then to go up from there. Van Buren County is currently ranked #19 of 75 total counties.
Cases of Covid-19 in Van Buren County have bubbled up recently but in the last few days have shown a more positive downward trend. I am very prayerful for the downward trend to continue as we enter the new year. Vaccinations have made their way to the county and shots are being given based on the Arkansas Department of Health guidelines. Hopefully, everyone who wants a shot will have the opportunity to receive it my mid-year.
Even after the conclusion of a year like 2020, Van Buren County has so much for which to be thankful. May 2021 bring health, prosperity, and happiness to every citizen. God bless VBC.
Dale James, Van Buren County Judge