Sebastian County panel vacancy declared after guilty theft plea; cost increase reported in new library project
FORT SMITH — The Sebastian County Quorum Court took the first step toward getting a new member after one justice of the peace and her husband, a former member, admitted Social Security fraud.
The Quorum Court voted 10-0 to approve a resolution officially declaring its District 12 justice of the peace seat, occupied by Rebekah Schwartz, vacant at its regular meeting Tuesday. Shawn Looper and Valeria Robinson, justices of the peace for districts 3 and 8 respectively, were not present.
County Judge David Hudson said the resolution would be sent to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who will appoint someone to serve the remainder of Schwartz’s term.
Rebekah Schwartz, 43, along with her husband, Stephen Schwartz, 55, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to felony theft of government funds and aiding and abetting the theft of government funds, according to a news release from Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office March 7. They face up to 10 years each in prison.
The Schwartzes admitted to defrauding the Social Security Administration of $167,756.60 from June 2016 through July 2021 after investigators confronted them last year, according to court documents filed March 2.
Rutledge’s office stated Little Rock’s Cooperative Disability Investigations Unit of the Social Security Administration received a tip Stephen Schwartz was working and simultaneously receiving disability benefits in November 2020.
Stephen Schwartz was employed with Liberty Roofing of Fort Smith from June 2016 to September 2016 but had his paychecks issued under his wife’s name to conceal he was working despite claiming a disability, according to the release. The investigation also revealed he worked at a countertop business in Fort Smith from December 2016 to July 2017 until he and Rebekah Schwartz started their own business, Schwartz Quartz and Stone.
Rebekah Schwartz, a Republican, was elected to a two-year term as the Quorum Court’s District 12 justice of the peace in the general election Nov. 3, 2020, according to results from that election. Stephen Schwartz was sworn in for the same position after being appointed by the governor on Aug. 19, 2019, according to Rutledge’s office.
Candidates for justice of the peace “must never have been convicted of embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery, or other infamous crime” under Article 5, §9 of the Arkansas Constitution, according to the State Board for Elections Commissioners’ 2020 Handbook for Candidates.
Rebekah Schwartz emailed her resignation from the Quorum Court effective immediately to Hudson on March 9.
The Quorum Court also heard about increased costs for a project to build a new, larger county library in Greenwood.
Hudson told justices of the peace MAHG Architecture, the Fort Smith-based firm the county contracted for library concepts and preliminary building planning services, provided a new estimated cost for the Greenwood library project this year of more than $5.05 million. This is an increase from the firm’s earlier cost estimate, which it developed April 12, of less than $4.5 million.
Hudson said this increase was due to changes that have taken place in the marketplace in the time between these two estimates.
Hudson wrote in a memo to the Quorum Court that the county has $603,091 in county sales tax and regional library revenues available for the construction project and $325,000 in library millage revenue available for the furnishings and fixtures of the project. Selling the current library building and land would provide the county an additional $240,000 in projected revenue based on a 2010 appraisal of the property. First Baptist Church Greenwood has expressed interest in buying the property.
The Quorum Court has also earmarked $1.35 million in the county general reserve fund over a period of time, bringing the total necessary to meet the updated budget to more than $2.5 million as of Tuesday, according to Hudson.
Rene Myers, regional library director for the Scott-Sebastian Regional Library System, has said the Sebastian County Library Board is heading up the project with the county. The current Sebastian County Library in Greenwood, located at 18 N. Adair St., was built in 1965 and is about 5,700 square feet. The new library is planned to be about 11,000 square feet, with about 2 acres at the intersection of Arkansas 10 Spur and U.S. 71 in Greenwood being the preferred site for the project.
Hudson said an anticipated donation of this property is in process. He informed the Quorum Court the updated construction budget, which includes a breakdown of how much each element of the project is expected to cost, may help with raising outside funds to build the library.
A Sebastian County justice of the peace position comes with an annual salary of $6,813.
Source: Sebastian County Office of Human Resources