Residency issue may prove costly


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A possible compromise over the disagreement on residency requirements for city department heads is important for Pine Bluff to move ahead.

Several Pine Bluff aldermen and Mayor Debe Hollingsworth have suggested there is a potential for a compromise.

We suggest a compromise or repeal of the residency requirement could stave off another raid on the municipal treasury. There have been times in recent years when the city did not have an emergency fund, or raided the fund to pay bills and salaries.

A review of state and federal court dockets several years ago revealed our city fathers had paid out some $20 million in jury verdicts and out-of-court settlements because of poor decisions made at City Hall.

Remember the ice storms of December 2000 and January 2001? The city contracted for removal and disposal of an estimated 600,000 cubic yards of trees and limbs downed as a result of the storms. Pine Bluff’s total eligible clean-up costs were computed then to be approximately $3.5 million.

A few years later the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis ruled that the city had to cover its insurer`s losses in a dispute over the clean-up project after the ice storms. Pennsylvania National Mutual Casualty Insurance Co., which provided a surety bond for the city, filed the appeal, saying it should be able to recover its losses after the city and an Alabama-based construction company settled the dispute over the project without Penn National`s knowledge.

The appeals court held that the city didn’t have immunity from being sued under those circumstances. The city was told to reimburse Penn National for losses incurred when the city paid the contractor. It seems the insurance company had asked that the funds be withheld pending an investigation.

The $2.4 million hit following the ice storms and a number of liability suits involving sexual harassment and brutality claims kept the treasury bare for years. That money was paid out during the administration of at least four mayors.

When you are talking about $2 million here and $250,000 there, soon it adds up to real money.

Tuesday night the council split 4-4 on Alderman George Stepps’ resolution calling for four non-resident administrators to immediately move into the city or be fired.

His motion referred to interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks, City Collector Albert Ridgell, Animal Shelter Director Brandon Southerland and Inspection and Zoning Director Robert Tucker.

Hubanks, appointed by Hollingsworth shortly after she fired former Chief Brenda Davis-Jones on Jan. 1, lives in Cleveland County. An ordinance adopted in 2000 states that department directors — including the police and fire chiefs — may not serve unless they’re city residents “continuously during the term” of their service.

“We need to be fair with everyone,” Alderman Bill Brumett noted. “When (former Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr.) hired people who lived elsewhere and didn’t move into the city, no one said anything because they thought he was getting the best people for the job. There have already been some precedents set.”

The term “precedent” is one that any court would likely take into consideration should any fired department head sue because of residency requirements were not enforced in the past.

Even Stepps acknowledged that some of the other non-resident department administrators were hired by Redus, adding those appointed by Redus may not have been “informed” of the residency requirement.

He acknowledges the ordinance has been ignored.

The council may want to ask how much money the city can afford to expend over another lawsuit. Our track record in the courts is nothing we can brag about.