Fort Smith library millage fails, Alma voters approve sales tax measure

story by Ryan Saylor

Voters went to the polls in Alma and Fort Smith on Tuesday (Aug. 12) to decide on a sales tax issue in the Crawford County city and a millage increase in Fort Smith, with mixed results. In Fort Smith, the two mil increase sought by the library's board of trustees went down by a vote of 64.02% against to 35.98% for the increase out of 4,343 votes cast.

Alma's attempt to get a one cent sales tax passed before the current one cent sales sunsets next month. A previous effort in the May primary to get a one cent sales tax passed ended up failing, leading to Tuesday's special election.

The millage question for the Fort Smith library 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 library's stated plan for the funding included improving technologies at the library, as well as adding a maker space and offering digital streaming services. Kiosks were also a possibility around the city, similar to red box but for books and other media.

At the Windsor Street library branch Tuesday afternoon, Library Trustee Bettye J. Baker said the programs proposed were needed and said the library's board of trustees had not formulated a "Plan B" for tonight's election result.

"Not really," she said. "We're just so hopeful that it will pass. And we are so aware of the programs that we need and it would really hurt all of us."

Rebekah Walton, a past library trustee voting at the Windsor Street branch Tuesday, voted in favor of the increase because she believed the neighborhood expansion that occurred in the 1990s is tied to the millage vote Tuesday "and it's a work that still needs to be completed."

She said she expected the library to find another way to fund the programs proposed as a part of the millage election that failed Tuesday.

"The list had the necessaries, the not so necessaries, and the dream items to make the library what they really want it to be. So if it does not pass, which I doubt, I think the library will – they have such a broad base of support – they will find another avenue to have done what they need to get done."

Dewayne Roller was another voter at the Windsor branch who voted against the millage.

"I voted against it," he said. "Well, I think we pay too much in taxes right now. We need to get business back in Fort Smith because it looks to me like Fort Smith is going to become another Detroit. That's just my personal opinion."

Robert Kelly, president of the library Board of Trustees, provided this statement: “Speaking for the Board of Trustees, we're obviously disappointed in the results of the election and also in the low voter turnout. We hope the low turnout doesn't reflect the community's real level of interest in the library. The Board is very proud of the excellent work the library staff did, particularly our director Jennifer Goodson, in promoting the library to the community. We are committed to offering quality library services to the community, at whatever level funding allows.”
Goodson issued this statement: “It's hard to know exactly what to say right now. We put together a plan for the library's future that we felt would provide value and impact our community positively for many years to come and we worked hard to share the plan with our citizens. It's disappointing that the majority of the people who voted today don't share that vision. The library staff and I remain committed to our community. We know that libraries change lives and we will continue our work tomorrow and the next day and into the future to do that to the best of our ability with the resources that are available to us.”

Should the library choose to vote on a millage increase, it may have to wait until after the general election in November, said Sebastian County Election Commission Chairman Lee Webb.

"The kicker is they would have to get the city to approve (an election) again and the deadline (to get on the November ballot) is in August for that. But I don't think they're planning (another election)."

In Alma, the results were different with the city's one percent tax passing. The sales tax will support a variety of projects, each of which had to be voted on separately.

Following is the final tally of votes for the various capital improvement projects.
• Streets – 288 to 154;
• Fire Department – 296 to 151;
• Police Department – 291 to 156;
• Parks Department – 278/156;
• Downtown development – 270 to 177;
• Parking – 256 to 192; and
• Refinancing municipal bond debt – 280 to 161.

According to Crawford County Clerk Teresa Armer, the sales tax will sunset once all projects have been paid off in full.