Squab­ble di­vides res­i­dents

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - STACY RYBURN

CAVE SPRINGS — The city didn’t al­ways used to make the news. Peo­ple pre­ferred it that way.

Cave Springs can hype it­self as the sec­ond fastest grow­ing city in North­west Arkansas, right be­hind Ton­ti­town. More than 3,800 peo­ple called this town home last year com­pared to just more than 1,900 in 2010, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Cen­sus fig­ures.

Res­i­dents don’t mind that kind of at­ten­tion. Ask any­one about a new sub­di­vi­sion or of­fice space or Sonic com­ing to town, and their faces light up.

Ask­ing about the city gov­ern­ment prompts a dif­fer­ent sort of re­ac­tion.

A squab­ble be­tween Mayor Travis Lee and Recorder/Trea­surer Kim­berly Hutch­e­son has spi­raled into a con­tro­versy that has un­folded over the past year. A sus­pi­cious-look­ing au­dit led Ben­ton County Prose­cu­tor Nathan Smith to re­quest an in­ves­ti­ga­tion from Arkansas State Po­lice. County Judge Barry Moehring told the city to re­turn $242,000 in prop­erty taxes be­cause of a fil­ing er­ror.

Lyn Lind­ley started work­ing at the E- Z Mart

near Low­ell Av­enue and Main Street last sum­mer and has heard talk from cus­tomers about the city’s fi­nan­cial woes nearly ev­ery day since. About half the peo­ple ex­press dis­dain for the mayor, coun­cil or gov­ern­ment as a whole. About a quar­ter give them the ben­e­fit of the doubt. The rest don’t seem to know or care much.

A group of gen­tle­men like to sit at the plas­tic booths set up next to the win­dow, sip cof­fee or soda and dis­cuss the lat­est drama, Lind­ley said. The talk re­mains civil, al­though it’s hard to miss, she said. The group’s mem­bers don’t hide their feel­ings.

“There’ll be some­one who might come over and join them, and they’ll have a dif­fer­ent opin­ion, and they dis­cuss it,” Lind­ley said. “It’s all been pretty calm. They might raise a voice a lit­tle bit or some­thing.”

Heather Cough­lin moved to Cave Springs three years ago from Scotts­dale, Ariz., never hav­ing lived in a small town be­fore. Cough­lin said she still feels fairly new to the in­ter­nal pol­i­tics but it seems un­cer­tainty has led to strife.

“It doesn’t ap­pear so far, at least from what’s been pub­lished from the au­dit, that there was crim­i­nal in­tent,” she said. “I don’t re­ally think that. I think it’s just con­fu­sion over what’s ap­pro­pri­ate — what’s the ap­pro­pri­ate role of Cave Springs gov­ern­ment, how should it be run, who’s re­spon­si­ble for what. It’s al­most like there’s not a stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure.”

Ba­sic im­prove­ments, such as new as­phalt on streets or a fixed com­mu­nity build­ing, haven’t ac­com­pa­nied the town’s rapid growth like one would ex­pect, Cough­lin said. It begs the ques­tion: Where is the money go­ing?

“It def­i­nitely doesn’t look good,” she said.

Res­i­dents will have the op­tion to do­nate their re­funded prop­erty taxes back to the city. Cough­lin said she’d con­sider it if city of­fi­cials clearly out­line a path to ac­com­mo­date growth and man­age the bud­get re­spon­si­bly. If the si­lence and con­fu­sion re­main at City Hall, Cough­lin would rather keep her money, she said.

“Some of it seems in­tu­itive,” Cough­lin said. “Any­body who has been within an or­ga­ni­za­tion knows you have a bud­get and you stick with your bud­get, par­tic­u­larly when you’re with a gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tion.”

Tim Nel­son, owner of Nel­son’s Hard­ware on Main Street, has lived his en­tire life in Cave Springs and re­mem­bers when it ran smoothly un­der for­mer Mayor Larry Smith. Nel­son sup­ported Mayor Lee when he was elected in 2014. Now

Nel­son feels dis­ap­pointed.

Lee seems to spend tax­payer money with­out a care and the city is in a fi­nan­cial bind be­cause of it, Nel­son said.

“It’s al­ways easy to spend some­body else’s money,” he said. “And that’s what’s hap­pened.”

Nel­son wishes the city would get back on course. There are plenty of great things about Cave Springs, he said. The Illi­nois River Wa­ter­shed Sanc­tu­ary sits right out­side his shop, for ex­am­ple. Res­i­dents wish that was the sort of thing they’d hear about on the lo­cal news.

“They don’t want to read the pa­per ev­ery day and say, ‘ Oh, there’s Cave Springs again,’” Nel­son said. “It just breaks your heart.”

Cough­lin

Nel­son

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