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Lib's lake.

Lib's Lake

Five Men Have Control Of $22-Million Project In Water-Starved Saline County

Damming a free-flowing mountain stream in Arkansas ranks high on the list of ways to get a cold drink of water and make a lot of people mad.

Such projects inevitably stir up strong emotions.

Put the proposed site for such a lake in Saline County, and the controversy factor increases exponentially.

Saline County has gained a reputation for serving up controversies the way Baskin-Robbins dishes up ice cream.

The only question is what the flavor-of-the-day will be.

Proponents envision a reservoir on the North Fork of the Saline River covering 3,500 acres and supplying the growing county with 60 million gallons of water per day.

Proponents envision a reservoir on the North Fork of the Saline River covering 3,500 acres and supplying the growing county with 60 million gallons of water per day.

The project's estimated cost is $22 million, a figure described as low by even conservative number crunchers.

At the center of this latest Saline County controversy is Lilburn Wayne Carlisle of Benton, believed by many to be the most powerful and politically connected man in the county.

"Lib" Carlisle is a man feared by his enemies and admired by his friends.

To pay for the development, Saline County voters last year approved a 1-cent countywide sales tax that will remain in effect for up to 12 years.

The 6,395-4,282 victory in an August special election prompted Benton businessman Calvin Brown to break down and cry for joy.

Carlisle, Brown and other prodevelopment forces, working under the name Water Wings Society, distributed pamphlets claiming defeat of the sales tax could result in annexation of parts of the county by Little Rock and busing of children to Pulaski County.

The scare tactics successfully were employed to counter shouts of "no dam taxes" by opponents advocating alternatives and opponents who disliked tax increases in general.

It was typical Saline County politics.

The factions picketed and heckled each other's rallies. The tug-of-war was so fierce that both sides claimed state Sen. Charlie Cole Chaffin of Benton was in their camp. Chaffin went public with a plea urging the factions to play fair.

Few would argue Saline County needs to secure a water source for the future. The problem is finding the best solution to the problem.

Winning the sales-tax vote may have been the easiest accomplishment in what promises to be a string of challenges for backers of the North Fork dam.

Both regulators and environmentalists vow to stop the project dead in its tracks.

Two threatened species could also sink the project -- the Ouachita madtom catfish and the fatmucket mussel.

Movers and shakers such as Carlisle are undaunted by the hurdles. They say damming the North Fork is the only answer from a dollars-and-cents standpoint.

Carlisle served as chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party from 1982-89. He long has had aspirations of running for lieutenant governor and perhaps even governor.

This year, Carlisle worked his way onto the Saline County Rural Development Authority as vice chairman.

The five-member board is charged with finding a long-term water source for the county. It oversees the North Fork project and determines how the money from the sales tax is spent.

In other words, its members, appointed by the Saline County judge, have control of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Other RDA members and their term expirations are:

* Brown, the RDA chairman and owner of Brown Trailer Sales at Benton, 1994.

* Don Hall, president of Smith-Caldwell Drug Store at Benton, 1993.

* Glenn Suggs, RDA secretary-treasurer and an Alcoa executive at Benton, 1992.

* George Kruse, owner of Kruse Meat Packing at Avilla, 1991.

Carlisle, in the first year of a five-year term, increasingly is becoming the standard bearer and lightning rod in this heated water fight. Although new to the RDA, Carlisle rejects charges from opponents that he's a Johnny-come-lately who only came on board when there was money -- and lots of it -- to be doled out.

"The pirates have taken over the ship," says one Saline County Republican.

"I've been for it a long time because I've seen the need for water," counters Carlisle, president of Thomas Real Estate & Insurance. "I hope the people know I'm for growth and would do anything to help that. Everything I own is here."

A $50,000 study conducted by FTN Associates Ltd. of Little Rock should be completed in time for the RDA's July 10 meeting. The results of the study will determine the authority's course of action and provide an indication of how sound the dam proposal is.

"We met with the governor about a year ago and talked with him about the county's needs," Brown says. "He didn't make any commitments, and we didn't make any commitments. We just want a chance to prove our numbers are correct."

The governor suggested the third-party study.

It was no coincidence that Lib Carlisle, political deal maker, was present the day the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission awarded Saline County $25,000 in matching funds to help pay for the study.

"Lib" Carlisle knows all about operating behind closed doors. And all about dropping names.

"I have not talked with the governor since I've been on the RDA," Carlisle claims. "A lot of people may think that because of our close relationship and friendship, I've called on the governor and talked with him about this matter. But I respect that friendship.

"Yes, I will talk with him when we get all of our stuff together."

As chairman of the Saline County Republican Committee, Brown often stands opposite Carlisle in the political trenches. But in the push for the North Fork dam, the two men find themselves on the same side.

"They are friends, and I feel like that will serve us well," Brown says of Carlisle and Gov. Bill Clinton.

County Unity

The name "Saline County Rural Development Authority" wasn't pulled out of a hat.

The name and the decision to put the project under the county's control was viewed as a way of neutralizing friction between rural Saline County and the city of Benton.

Benton provides water and water treatment services to rural water associations at Salem, West Bauxite, Tull and in southwest Saline County.

The city and the water associations have been in and out of court for more than two years haggling over rates.

Benton draws its water directly from the Saline River and would be the largest participant in the North Fork project.

"The county needs to own it," Carlisle says. "That would unify the county."

"August was the first time the people had a chance to vote on it, and they voted 60-40 to pay for it," Brown says. "We're not asking anyone outside Saline County to pay for this."

Bryant has tapped into Little Rock's system for its water. In return, the city had to sign a pact limiting growth.

The Woodland Hills area near Bryant has also run out of options. It may follow suit and sign a pre-annexation agreement with Little Rock.

Particularly galling to some Saline County residents is the fact that Lake Winona is located within the county's borders but is owned by the city of Little Rock.

A contract for water from Lake Winona was considered, but Saline County officials could not accept Little Rock's requirement for a pre-annexation agreement.

"Saline County wants to maintain its identity," Carlisle says.

Many in the county resent Little Rock's ability to project its influence south of the Pulaski County line. The limited growth agreements required of Bryant and Woodland Hills are used as rallying cries in other parts of Saline County.

But the ability to annex territory beyond the Pulaski County line isn't the motivation behind Little Rock's dictatorial terms for selling water.

The city has its own demons.

Little Rock's fear is getting dragged into federal court by another school desegregation lawsuit. Supplying water outside the county might be construed by some as promoting white flight.

If the North Ford project is completed, Bryant is entitled to water from the new reservoir but will have to run its own pipeline and set up treatment facilities.

Even though the city has an agreement with Little Rock, the citizens of Bryant are helping fund the dam proposal.

Carlisle and other RDA members are so confident they will ultimately obtain their goal that a $1.8-million bond issue was floated in April to finance environmental and engineering studies.

The private placement of the tax-free, 5.75 percent yield bonds was split between Benton State Bank and Union Bank of Benton.

Trickle Down Effect?

Environmentalists aren't the only ones raising concerns about damming the North Fork of the Saline River.

The city of Warren, which relies on the Saline for water, isn't supporting the North Fork project. Residents in that south Arkansas town are worried the project will have a negative impact downstream.

State Sen. Jim Scott of Warren came up with a bill during this year's legislative session that would have designated sections of the Cossatot, Strawberry, Little Missouri and Saline rivers as scenic waterways.

Chaffin blocked the measure, and it died in the Senate Agriculture, Economic and Industrial Development Committee.

"They're trying to tell everyone it is a protected river," Brown says. "Senator Scott made a mad dash to get it protected. But there are regulatory agencies that will stop us if we're about to damage anything.

"I don't mind someone disagreeing with me, but I don't like people throwing us curves with half-truths and no truths."

The first regulatory hurdle involves the state Department of Pollution Control and Ecology. Other state and federal agencies such as the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have input.

Already, the RDA has taken actions that have fueled criticism.

In August 1990, Hope Engineers Inc. of Benton was selected as the project's engineering consultant.

Three months later, the RDA rescinded the action because the job had not been put up for competitive bids.

"There wasn't really a high or a low bidder," Brown says, trying to explain the controversial decision. "They were all pretty close on price. There was basically a difference in what services would be offered.

"We thought we had complied with the law, but our attorney told us to rebid it. We talked with various engineers the first time before choosing Hope, but we didn't publicly advertise for bids."

Hope, which donated its services for a preliminary engineering study, was again selected after the RDA reviewed proposals from five companies.

In February, the RDA paid Hope a $150,000 retainer and an additional $16,000 to survey the proposed reservoir site. As of May, Hope had received payments of $250,847 from the RDA.

Ray Baxter, the RDA's attorney, is the second largest recipient of Saline County taxpayers' money for the six months ending May 31. Baxter was paid $9,330 at a rate of $75 per hour.

Baxter just happens to be chairman of the Saline County Democratic Committee. Like Hope Engineering, he volunteered his services until money from the sales tax began pouring in.

Is the RDA playing politics in its spending practices?

There are those who think so.

In April, Elene Murray of the North Fork Preservation Society had trouble gaining access to RDA documents. She filed a freedom of information complaint with Dan Harmon, Benton's bulldog of a prosecuting attorney.

Saline County Judge Terry Parsons offered to provide office space to the RDA so records could be kept in a central, accessible location. Parsons' predecessor as county judge, Parker Johnston, had accused Murray of stealing the document that legitimized the creation of the RDA.

Project opponents questioned the authority of the RDA in the weeks leading up to the sales tax election. The finger pointing intensified when the paperwork verifying the RDA's existence could not be found.

Randall Mathis, director of the state Department of Pollution Control and Ecology, threw another wild card into the mix shortly before the special election.

Mathis wrote a letter advising Saline County voters he would reject the permit application for the dam.

Baxter accused Mathis of having a conflict of interest. Mathis, who ran for governor as a Democrat in 1978, was once Clark County judge. Clark County contains part of DeGray Lake, a water source option ruled out by the RDA.

North Fork project supporters viewed Mathis' self-described "friendly warning" as meddling.

"No one died and made Mr. Mathis God," Baxter says.

"I believe in following rules and regulations, and that's just the way it's going to have to be," Mathis replies.

According to Mathis, the North Fork of the Saline River is classified as an environmentally sensitive stream, a designation dating back to 1987.

Project proponents such as "Lib" Carlisle and Calvin Brown say the designation does not cover the portion of the river being considered for development.

"Mr. Mathis made an unfortunate statement without looking at the facts," Brown says.

But Mathis says the river's classification will have to change before the RDA stands a chance of obtaining a permit.

Has Mathis felt heat from the governor's office, considering Carlisle's relationship with Clinton?

"No, I haven't," Mathis says. "I keep them informed on controversial decisions, but you can't protect the environment by bowing to political heat."

If Mathis rejects the RDA's permit application as expected, the authority will have to appeal to the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission. Carlisle and Brown then will be forced to use their political connections to influence 11 commissioners. They are:

* Bryce Mobley, Mobley Construction Co. of Morrilton.

* Joe Pascale, National Filtration Corp. of Star City.

* Jake Looney, a law professor at University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

* Eugene Farrell, mayor of Dermott.

* Richard Mason, an El Dorado oilman.

* Bill Williams, director of the state Geological Commission.

* Randy Young, director of the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission.

* Ed Waddell, director of the state Forestry Commission.

* Steve Wilson, director of the state Game and Fish Commission.

* Bill Wright, director of the state Oil and Gas Commission.

* Jerry Hill, director of the state Department of Health's Bureau of Environmental Health Services.

Mason has proposed that the North Fork of the Saline River be classified as an endangered stream. He says he made the proposal at the urging of Clinton, raising questions as to whose side the governor is on -- Carlisle's or the environmentalists.

"It's going to be a real controversial issue, and I look forward to getting into it," says Hill, who has served a dozen years on the commission. "Benton is quite a bit behind in planning for regional water needs. The needs are immediate, but they haven't done enough to prepare."

Looking Back

Lake Norrell was developed in 1953 as Benton's primary water source, but the city failed to control residential development along the lake. The reservoir was created by damming Brushy Creek, which flows into the Saline River.

The Health Department allows the city to use Lake Norrell only as a backup water source. During periods of peak demand, water is released from the lake and picked up downstream at the city's treatment plant.

The system is inefficient because water is lost on the way downstream. A 1989 pipeline proposal died when the Health Department ruled there were too many septic tanks and too much development to allow regular use of Lake Norrell for drinking water.

Benton uses an average of 4 million gallons of water per day, with peak use of up to 7 million gallons. Projections for the year 2000 indicate an average need for 6 million gallons daily, with a 10.5 million gallon peak.

The RDA has rejected pipelines from DeGray and Lake Ouachita, saying the options would require too much money. The authority also opposes drilling wells in Saline County.

Brown says the best place for wells is in the southeastern part of the county near Sardis. The location is close to the Little Rock and Saline County landfills.

"You can measure your water source in a lake, but you can't underground," Brown says.

Opponents promise a fight that could drag on for more than a decade.

"I would like us to be branded as rational people trying to meet our water needs," Brown says. "There needs to be a balance between environmental needs and human needs."

In the 1960s, the Corp of Engineers performed a preliminary study of two proposed dam projects in Saline County. Both would have encompassed the North Fork site and surpassed it in size.

The interested parties were the cities of Little Rock and Benton. Little Rock even bought some of the land, which it resold after the project was abandoned.

Politics is cited as the reason the two projects never became realities.

Today, politics will determine the fate of the North Fork project.

Because of its reputation as a breeding ground for scandals, the way the five men on the RDA spend millions of dollars in tax money will be watched closely.

Calvin Brown may be the RDA chairman, but he's a Republican in a Democratic state.

More and more, observers in Saline County feel this is "Lib" Carlisle's battle to win or lose.

PHOTO : POTFUL OF MONEY: Is a reservoir on the North Fork of the Saline River a good idea? "Lib" Carlisle, vice chairman of the Saline County Rural Development Authority (left), and Bill Hope Jr., vice president of Hope Engineering, think so. Carlisle, a former chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, and four other men have control of hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales tax revenue. Hope's firm already has made more than $200,000 off the taxpayers.

PHOTO : WHY ARE THESE MEN SMILING: Movers and shakers in Saline County have identified the North Fork of the Saline River as the county's best choice for a long-term water source. Supporters are confident they will prevail. Project opponents fear the money won't be spent wisely, however, in scandal-prone Saline County. Pictured above are one of the men spending the money, "Lib" Carlisle, vice chairman of the Saline County Rural Development Authority (left), and one of the men making money, Bill Hope Jr., vice president of Hope Engineers Inc.

PHOTO : DECISION MAKERS: Pictured clockwise (beginning at top left) are George Kruse, Saline County Judge Terry Parsons, Don Hall, Glenn Suggs and Calvin Brown. Kruse, Hall, Suggs and Brown are members of the Saline County Rural Development Authority along with "Lib" Carlisle. The RDA controls the purse strings on revenues from a 1-cent sales tax approved last year by Saline County voters.

George Waldon Arkansas Business Staff
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Lilburn Wayne Carlisle's involvement in dam construction controversy in Saline County, Arkansas
Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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