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The city of Benton Personnel, Health and Safety Committee voted to send an ordinance to the full council to freeze pay increases and hiring for the city during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mayor Tom Farmer said he was concerned about the way the city's finances are going so he wants to put the freeze in place as of June 1.

"We have got people furloughed right now. I can't see giving raises when we have got people furloughed off," Farmer said.

The only exceptions to the hiring freeze would be for essential employees, such as for the fire and police departments. Fire Chief Bill Ford said he does not feel comfortable hiring any positions, especially considering the fire academies are not operating.

Police Chief Scotty Hodges said the only positions he needs to fill is two communications positions that he has already begun the process for. He is not sure he can complete it by June 1. Farmer agreed those positions are essential.

Christiane Crabtrey, Human Resources Director and HR Staff Liaison to the committee, told the committee that when the River Center reopens, part-time employees will need to be hired to staff it and serve as life guards.

Farmer said the Municipal League said the city can keep furloughed employees on the city insurance.

He commended the department heads for the way they cut their budgets to allow the city to still offer essential services. He said the city is watching every penny.

Farmer was unsure how long the freeze should last. City Attorney Brent Houston said he would review the ordinance that give annual increases to see what it says about it.

Farmer thinks it should last 120 days before its reviewed because of the way tax revenue comes into the city.

The committee discussed the interviews for the new city attorney which will be held Wednesday. There are five candidates. Each will get 40 minutes for the interview.

Committee Chair Bill Donnor said each candidate will get the same questions, but committee members will be permitted to ask follow up questions to clarify information.

He emphasized each candidate must get the same questions.

"It wouldn't be fair to ask one person a complicated budget question and ask the next person a simple question," Donnor said.

Houston wanted be sure the committee asks about if each candidate lives in or plans to move to Benton. He cited an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that said a person can hold office if they move to the city by the time they take office. The new attorney will take over Jan. 1, 2021 and finish out Houston's term.

Crabtrey suggested the committee combine its list of 24 questions, which came from committee, council and others, into 15 questions for the candidates.

Houston told the committee they are looking to fill a position that will be a contract two years for $120,000 per year.

"You want to be sure whomever you are appointing, they know what they are doing, they are going to take care of the residents of Benton, they are going to take care of you as council members and the mayor," Houston said.

The committee also discussed a new organizational chart that would have all the department heads represented and have them all reporting to Farmer. The only would be communications, which reports to the fire and police departments. The committee voted to put an ordinance on the next full council agenda to add the chart to the hand book.

City meetings are open to the public. When in person, attendance is encouraged, or viewing is encouraged when online.

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