Mayor Jamie Mayo.JPG

Monroe Civic Center Director George Cannon says asbestos has been falling from the ceiling inside the Jack Howard Theatre for at least a year.

In spite of city officials knowing about the asbestos, the city has continued holding events in the theater.

Cannon told The Ouachita Citizen about the falling asbestos after the Monroe City Council’s regular meeting Tuesday. At that time, the City Council agreed to seek bids on renovating the Jack Howard Theatre, including the abatement of the asbestos.

According to Cannon, the soundproof and fireproof material above the theater’s stage contained asbestos and the material had begun to fall from the ceiling.

“It was built with both the sound proofing and the fireproofing material used on the stage area and above the stage was blown on material,” Cannon said.

Cannon said it was possible the material containing asbestos had been falling longer than a year, but it did not become obvious until a year ago.

“It might have been in small amounts where nobody noticed it, but it became evident to us though in the last 12 months when it really began to detach itself,” Cannon said.

According to Cannon, asbestos was discovered in the material falling to the ground after the substance was tested by PAC Environmental Specialists, an asbestos testing company based out of Swartz, in the fall of 2019.

“It was determined that there was some asbestos content material, so that will have to be changed out,” Cannon said.

Cannon could not specify how much asbestos was found in the material.

Cannon defended the city’s decision to continue holding events inside the Jack Howard Theater in spite of the asbestos, referring to regular air tests to ensure safety of people on the stage.

“We contacted PAC,” Cannon said. “They brought DEQ (the state Department of Environmental Quality) into it because everyone wanted to make sure we were doing what we needed to do,” Cannon said. “We had it tested and determined that it was not in the air to the level that you would have to close it.”

PAC Environmental Services conducted the tests before and after each event, according to Cannon.

“We have been doing that each time and they have certified each time that the environment is safe for people at that particular time, but the time is going to come when that’s not the case and that’s why we are trying to get proactive on this,” Cannon said. “When it falls, it is still falling in clumps rather than spreading through the air to become a bigger problem.”

Cannon warned the asbestos could become significantly more difficult to control as the material continued falling.

“At some point it’s going to come down and it’s going to cease to come in clumps and it’s going to get more airborne,” Cannon said. “I don’t know how much it’s going to cost, but ultimately we have to deal with it.”

On another front, Monroe City Council introduced an ordinance amending the operating budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. The 2020-2021 fiscal year began May 1.

According to city documents, the city expects a loss of some $3.4 million in sales tax revenues because of the COVID-19 crisis.

According to a report released on May 7 by state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, Monroe could lose some $3.6 million to $10.8 million in sales tax collections.

The report, “Effect of COVID-19 on Local Government Revenues” presented projections of lost revenues that are based on worst case and best case scenarios.

According to the report’s optimistic scenario, the city’s sales tax collections could drop by some $2 million in 2020 and some $1.6 million in 2021, for a total loss of some $3.6 million.

In an interview with The Ouachita Citizen, Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo referred to the state auditor’s report and expressed confidence in the city’s more optimistic projections.

“The legislative auditor put out something here recently that they’re projecting a low amount and a high amount, and they’re projecting what they think we will lose,” Mayo said. “We have budgeted conservatively and the model we are using has been working for 18 years, so we continue to use that model.”

City documents show Mayo’s administration is trying to tamp down on expenditures by instituting a hiring freeze of all non-critical employee positions, a freeze on all salary increases, a freeze on overtime, a freeze on some non-critical capital acquisitions, a freeze on some non-critical overnight travel among other changes.

Previously, Mayo’s administration ordered a partial furlough of one hour of work each week for every employee for at least seven months.

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