Board misses November deadline; to push convention center vote in January

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 41 views 

The Fort Smith board of directors waited so long to make a decision on which convention center funding options to place before voters, they missed the deadline for the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

The board spent most of 2008 and 2009 trying to come up with a solution to plug the annual deficit with the Fort Smith Convention Center. A state turnback program ends in June 2010 from which the city has received about $1.8 million a year. In 2010 the city will receive only $888,723 in 2010.

Many of those months were spent waiting on and discussing possible projects on the Fort Smith riverfront (baseball stadium) and Ben Geren Regional Park (water park facility).

The board voted 5-2 on Jan. 26 to seek voter approval of a 1% prepared food tax to shore up the Fort Smith Convention Center, and then move forward on a tourism and recreation development plan for the Fort Smith riverfront and Ben Geren Regional Park.

Approving the plan to first address the Convention Center shortfall were City Directors Andre Good, Cole Goodman, Don Hutchings, Bill Maddox and Steve Tyler. Not supporting the plan was City Directors Gary Campbell and Kevin Settle.

Hutchings and Goodman said during the Jan. 26 meeting that the board has talked long enough about the convention center shortfall and it must be addressed because it is a clear and present threat. Mayor Ray Baker agreed.

“It makes us look foolish that we can’t come to a conclusion on this,” Baker said at the time.

The board wavered on its Jan. 26 vote and then voted to create an ad hoc committee to study funding and management options for the convention center. The ad hoc convention center committee first met April 22 and reviewed several options, including a 1% hospitality tax, finding cuts in the city’s roughly $40 million operating budget, reallocating a portion of the city’s 1% street tax, re-instituting a business license fee and finding a 3rd party operator for the center.

That group eventually endorsed a 1% prepared food tax that would also support the U.S. Marshals Museum and other city art and entertainment facilities and event.

During a Tuesday (Aug. 24) board study session, the board began to shift toward pushing two to four funding options to voters on the November general election ballot.

Fort Smith City Clerk quickly put an end to those ideas, telling the board that today (Aug. 24) was the deadline to have all the resolutions and ordinances prepared. She reminded the board that the deadline was part of previous board packets.

The next opportunity to place the item or items on a ballot is Jan. 11, with Nov. 16 the deadline to have all the legal paperwork finalized.

The board then instructed the staff to draw up three questions for the ballot.
• A half-percent prepared food tax to cover convention center costs only, and estimated to raise $900,000 annually;
• A 1% percent prepared food tax to cover convention center costs that would annually allocate $1 million for the convention center, $240,000 for a convention center maintenance fund, $250,000 for Marshals Museum operating costs, $100,000 for the Fort Smith Classic (PGA professional golf tournament), $60,000 for various festivals, $50,000 for Bass Reeves monument (2012 and 2013 only), and $50,000 for arts community (beginning in 2014);
• Reallocation of 1% street tax funds to cover only the annual costs to operate the convention center.

If the reallocation plan is approved by voters, the two prepared food tax options would not be enacted, even if they gain voter approval.

The board was unwilling to commit to a $100,000 funding request from the U.S. Marshals Museum. Board members and City Administrator Dennis Kelly said continuing to fund outside agencies while trying to work through a budget shortfall is problematic, at best.

However, the board said they would agree to a letter of support with the goal of reviewing the funding request following whatever it is the voters approve on Jan. 11.