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Local control, responsibilities weighed during watershed workshop

by Michael Hanich | May 30, 2023 at 7:30 p.m.
Photo By: Michael Hanich Kalven Trice speaking to the mayor and alderman of Camden on Thursday, May 25.

The Camden City Council last Thursday held a special workshop meeting to discuss a watershed project that will potentially be developed throughout Ouachita County. The meeting between the city of Camden and the Black Mayors Association was announced on Monday, May 22.

The Black Mayors Association received $95.9 million in an agreement from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for watershed projects throughout southeastern, eastern and southwest Arkansas to relieve flooding in rural areas and housing communities. Camden was one of 14 cities chosen for the project in September 2022, as explained by the BMA president and Lewisville Mayor Ethan Dunbar.

The project is currently in the planning and development stage, where the hiring for the construction of the watershed and other details will be established.

"This is going to help flooding," Dunbar told City Council members. "There's not been a project like this, that I know of, ever, but this is going to help flooding inside residential areas. Ninety-six million dollars to address flooding issues in residential communities is something that all of us in rural communities need."

Dunbar explained that Camden is one of the five cities funded for planning, design and construction. This watershed project has been mostly utilized in agriculture areas and is rare in rural areas like Camden.

Camden was chosen by a 15-person panel for the project to be constructed by Michael Baker International from Little Rock. This project is expected to be completed in five to seven years, or by August 2030 at the latest, according to Dunbar.

Dunbar confirmed that Thursday's meeting would begin the introduction process to potentially get the project going. The engineers working on the project are set to learn about the areas in Ouachita County that would most be affected by the flooding through surveying the area and outreach. The planning process will take 18-to-24 months alone said Dunbar.

Council members asked where the excess of water would lead to once the watershed is in place. Members said they were worried the redirection of the water would lead into people's properties. Dunbar said the project's planning process was critical to avoid a potential problem like this.

A significant portion of the meeting was spent discussing the fact that the City of Camden is behind in the planning process, which began in Little Rock several weeks back.

"We've sent invitations," Dunbar explained. "We invited you all to come to the planning process. We even pay for them to come and spend a week in Little Rock to go through the process and help us choose which firms will take the projects for which city and we needed mayors from cities there and we got some, but no, you all didn't even have a representative."

Alderman L.E. Lindsey said he had concerns about 33 obligations of the project that Camden would be liable for, including reworking and reconstructing city properties that would limit the construction of the watershed, at the city's expense.

Dunbar reiterated that planning would be vital to the construction process, and an opportunity for the city to object to issues like that.

Kalven Trice, the former lead consultant of the project, came up the podium as a representative from the BMA. Trice explained that this is the first time a nonprofit organization such as BMA is the fiscal agent, as opposed to the city, mayor and its council, for a project like this. He confirmed that the city doesn't have to pay a thing when it comes to the construction of the project.

"What your responsibility is," Trice said, "as a sponsoring local organization, is to do all those things that Mayor Dunbar talked about," which includes providing support and communication of potential problems that could affect the construction of the watershed.

"Your responsibility," Trice continued, "yeah, you get 100% money, but it's the price of admission. The price of admission is operations maintenance for 50 years or life of the project and to address any land rights issues that you were talking about. So, if you got that sewer out there, if you got that train track that the has to be moved, then that's your responsibility."

Trice said the project will seek to be cost-friendly, leaving the city and county with control over the watershed.

"We believe that we are going to look at low tech approaches," Trice said. "We're going to look at things that you have control over, but the entity that does that with leadership comes from the mayor. The mayor is responsible for selecting. Traditionally, the mayor is responsible selecting the aid in front. The mayor is responsible for everything, every aspect of what our project is doing."

Trice said time is a critical aspect to move forward, "We should have had this meeting May 20, 2022, not one year later. At that time when the announcement was made, the chief of the agency said 'look, we need these plans on my desk by the end of the Biden Administration.'"

"It's your responsibility, all of you," Trice said, "to work with those stakeholders in order to be able to design a project that will address the problem and it is you, since you are responsible for 50 years."

Council members also raised concerns about the work done at the city's expense, considering that BMA and their representative created and control the language of the contract. There is an option for the project to be pulled back to allow more local control as explained by BMA executive director Frank Bateman.

Lindsey asked the BMA representatives if two mayors also involved with the project in their own cities, Forest City and Marianna, are wanting to keep theirs locally controlled.

Trice responded, "You know, when you look at the needs of these communities, there is a reason that these problems exist. If someone thinks that they can manage these projects from Little Rock, then I can tell you something different that I've seen all through history of my career. It's so important that there be local control. In the end, if you read that agreement, it'll be too late later on. You got to make a decision. You know, all I can do is give you the information that you didn't have."

Ebony Gulley challenged Trice's role in the project, and Council members and BMA representatives got into in a minute-long overlapping discussion that had to be called to order by Mayor Charlotte Young.

Stephens Mayor Harry Brown, a member of the BMA, said he hopes future watershed discussions will be productive.

"We started out with the workshop," Brown said. "We ended up with a battle of what, I don't know. We came here in good faith. You all know. You know what I'm about. Stephens is just much a part of Camden and therefore I serve on this board, have served on it since I first became Mayor and I would not do anything, make any judgment, that would jeopardize Stephens or Camden, because I think of Camden just like I do Stephens, this is my home."

Brown brought the attention back to the contract and the project, "We're in this for the long haul and we're here to make sure that Camden gets what they are promised."

"This whole effort has been to get local control; Camden hasn't responded," Dunbar said. "You know, so we want you at the table. We want you all to be able to sit here."

"We came here and met with the mayor a couple of months ago, you know, but then nothing. So local control, yes, we want you all involved. So you all know where the flooding is and you all can help that's been our whole goal," he continued.

When it came to the questioning of the ethics of BMA providing funds for Camden with the mayor not being a member, Bateman came to the city's defense.

"You don't have to be Black to be a part of the association; El Dorado (mayor Paul Choate who is white), he's a member. It's not even about that... Water does not have any color. I've seen the flooding videos from Camden and pictures and all over. We don't discriminate. We don't even say things like that. We just we are working trying to help this communities get the flooding drained," he said.

After the representatives of BMA were dismissed, the mayor and city council agreed to hold another workshop on the watershed project on Thursday, June 8. There will be a community meeting to discuss this project on July 6.

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