story by Ryan Saylor
Residents who were hopeful county officials would allocate more money toward the Ben Geren Aquatic Center, which would have resulted in more high-end amenities such as a diving pool and a longer lazy river, had their hopes crushed on Tuesday night (Feb. 19).
The Sebastian County Quorum Court rejected an appropriations ordinance that would allocated $820,000 more to the project.
The measure, which received five “yes” votes, would have Sebastian County paying additional construction costs in exchange for the city of Fort Smith absorbing operating expenses and losses until the funds were repaid in full to the county.
In voting against the measure, district 3 Justice of the Peace Shawn Looper said the county simply could not afford the additional cost.
District 11 JP Linda Murry said she did not feel comfortable voting for the revised funding without seeing blueprints of what the extra funds would provide the aquatic center.
John Spradlin, who represents district 5, expressed frustration at the city of Fort Smith, where citizens overwhelmingly passed a sales tax to repay bonds for their half of the original project’s $8 million price tag.
“The city pushed this deal … they damn sure sold the dream (to voters),” Spradlin said.
He also expressed reservations about passing additional funding for the project without fully exploring the extent of how long it may take the city to repay the new funding to the county.
“They hid behind some sort of rule saying they can’t spend more than $4 million,” Spradlin said.
Later he said in frustration that the deal between the city and county through an interlocal agreement “was 50/50 and then they backed up the other night (Feb. 12).”
Ramsey Junior High School students who had challenged the city and county to pony up more money for the project in order for the aquatics center to appeal to more teenagers left the quorum court meeting with their heads hung low immediately after the vote.
Outside the courtroom, freshman Gregory Short said he was not completely upset by the outcome.
“At least they let us make our point about it,” he said, adding that he would reserve judgment on whether he will use the aquatic center until final designs are presented and bid to contractors.
District 6 JP Danny Aldridge said he was not giving up on trying to get students what they want.
“I’ve got to find out what the procedure is to bring it back,” he said. “In my mind, it’s just a temporary setback.”
Spradlin later proposed his own idea for building a better water park – explore a county-wide sales tax vote and leave the city out of the equation.
The idea was quickly put to rest with a quick rebuke by County Judge David Hudson.
“That has not been in the game plan to talk about tax,” Hudson said. “That’s not my recommendation in any way. My recommendation is to take the money that we already have without any new taxes because you and I are both very sensitive on new taxes and I’ve identified $820,000 that is available without any new taxes. That is no taxes and you could enlarge the facility with no new taxes.”
After the conclusion of the meeting, Hudson said he viewed passing a separate sales tax to fund construction of the facility as “unwise.”
“If we had no other option, then we (may have explored that),” Hudson said. “But there was an option and they voted against it.”
In other business, the quorum court:
• Approved on second reading ordinance 2012-22 to appropriate the original funding of nearly $4 million for the county’s half of construction cost at the aquatic center. A third and final reading will take place at the court’s March meeting;
• Approved an ordinance calling for a special election to continue a county-wide 1% sales and use tax was passed, establishing May 14, 2013, as the election date;
• Passed a motion to present a 2% cost of living wage increase for full-time county workers at the March meeting;
• Approved on first reading an ordinance requiring all animals within the boundaries of county parks be leashed at all times; and,
• Approved a resolution certifying local government endorsement of a plan by Umarex USA to participate in the Tax Back Program.