Don’t blame the voters

The City Wire editorial

This notion that a majority of Fort Smithians are anti-progress and aren’t willing to pay the bill for socio-economic improvements is absurd and an unfortunate and ill-considered response among those frustrated by voter rejection of a library millage increase.

The millage question for the Fort Smith Public Library system would have raised the library's millage rate from one mil to three mils, which would have increased the library's operating budget by approximately $2.8 million. The millage question failed in an Aug. 12 special election with 64.02% against to 35.98% for out of 4,343 votes cast.

In comments on social media, opinions and in comments directed to The City Wire, supporters of the library millage have made clear their frustration and anger over the election outcome. Those emotions are understandable. A core group of library staffers and supporters worked hard to gain voter approval, and the margin of defeat surely stung.

There have been social media comments that the election outcome is an example of why Fort Smith is not keeping up with other cities – especially Northwest Arkansas cities. Some of the frustrated who live in other cities said the election outcome validates the reason they moved away from Fort Smith. Some have said the vote is proof that most in Fort Smith do not support services for children, seniors, and the unemployed. It confirmed for some that most in Fort Smith are selfish and uneducated cave people.

A local newspaper editorial suggests that the election outcome should result in “soul-searching” based on the “meanness” and “anger” and “complete misinformation” among those who opposed the millage increase. When it comes to paying the bills for a better community, the newspaper editorial said that too often “we pull our heads and feet into our shells and say, ‘no, no, no.’”

The editorial assessment is simply wrong, wrong, wrong – as is the perception that the library millage defeat reflects a broad anti-progress attitude in the city. To say the rejection of a $2.8 millage increase is a sign that voters always say “no, no, no” is to wholly ignore the more than $1 billion – yes, billion – of tax increases or extensions Fort Smith voters have approved in the past almost 30 years.

Let’s review our voting history on major funding proposals.

In 1985, voters approved a 1% tax for street and drainage improvements. The street sales tax — which sunsets every 10 years — was approved by voters again in 1995 (with 87.2% voting yes) and in 2005 (with 66.3% voting yes). The tax may appear on Fort Smith ballots again in 2015. That tax has generated more than $400 million in infrastructure support – some of which has allowed for economic development at Chaffee Crossing.

Fort Smith voters passed a second 1% sales tax in the 1988 general election in order to fund $31.5 million in revenue bonds for the Lee Creek water system. The sales tax passed with 71.6% of the vote. The city paid off the bonds before construction at Lee Creek was completed. With the bonds retired, the 1% sales tax also ended in February 1993.

After two failed attempts, Sebastian County and Fort Smith voters approved in 1994 (56.2% for) a countywide sales tax. The tax – which provides almost $1 million a year to the Fort Smith Public Library – was renewed in 2003 with 63.5% voter approval. The tax was overwhelmingly approved in May 2013 by almost 79% of voters. That tax has generated more than $450 million since 1994.

In 1997, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund a combined $45.6 million in revenue bonds for the Fort Smith Convention Center (then the Fort Smith Civic Center), the library, and a new riverfront park. Then, in 2001, voters approved another half-cent sales tax to fund a combined $80 million in bonds for the Lake Fort Smith Water Supply and for wet weather wastewater improvements. Once the bonds for the convention center, library, and riverfront park were paid off, the tax revenue for those bonds was automatically redirected to the water supply and wastewater improvements, meaning that a full penny of sales tax revenue was now funding those areas.

Residents of Sebastian County also pay a quarter-cent sales tax for the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. Voters approved the tax with 76.3% of the vote in a July 2001 special election.

In 2006, the city proposed using the combined 1% sales tax to cover new bonds for wastewater improvements, a riverfront sports complex, city hall improvements, and a public safety radio system. Voters rejected the sports complex and city hall bonds but approved the wastewater and public safety radio bonds. The city paid off the public safety radio bond over the next few years, and in 2009 it brought the combined 1% tax back to the ballot so voters could approve using it exclusively for wastewater improvements. The ballot measure passed with nearly 90% of the vote.

In March 2012, Fort Smith voters approved a broad package of infrastructure and recreational improvements through a 1% sales tax extension. Refinancing of bonds was approved by 75.8% of participating voters. The extension was estimated to finance more than $112.56 million in new bonds for water and sewer system improvements, and potentially direct $45 million in 10 years toward the operations of the city’s Fire Department and Parks Department. A $9.11 million plan for fire station improvements gained approval from 77.25% of participating voters. The $4.26 million proposal for the aquatics park at Ben Geren received 64% voter approval.

In addition to the 2006 rejection of a sports complex and new city call and the recent library millage increase rejection, Fort Smith voters also rejected in recent years (62% voting against) enactment of a 1% prepared food tax.

Our unofficial tally shows that of key funding proposals in the past 30 years, Fort Smith voters approved 19 tax increases and/or extensions and rejected six. That’s a 76% rate of approval.

Specifically to the library, voters approved five tax/millage increases and/or extensions providing direct funding for the library, including the bold 1997 package that allowed for construction of the new main library and three branch libraries. The recent library millage increase was the only rejection. That’s an 83% rate of approval and hardly the pattern of a selfish or uneducated electorate.

The facts indicate that soul-searching by Fort Smith voters has resulted in anything but a “no, no, no” response when asked to improve the world around them.

And to that point, The City Wire reiterates its belief that the library system needs more funding, and is willing to advocate for a half- or one-mil increase tied to a clearly defined plan.