Squabble divides residents
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.”