Mayors, Fort Smith police chief push for 1% tax renewal

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 168 views 

Leaders from across Sebastian County urged voters Tuesday morning (April 2) to renew a 1% sales tax that funds operations in 11 cities across the county, as well as providing county services, such as funding for the county jail.

The sales tax was first approved by voters in 1994 and must be renewed every 10 years, according to County Judge David Hudson. This year, the election for renewal will be held May 14 at all regular polling places, he said.

According to Hudson, the sales tax brings in nearly $23 million per year, which is split between the county and all cities according to population.

"So the majority of the revenues do go to the city of Fort Smith, that's the largest population center," he said. "The county receives revenues based on the unincorporated residents, that's about $3.5 million, and then each cities receive their proportionate share, whatever the share that the cities get is a very significant portion of their budget."

Hudson pointed to Hugh Hardgrave, mayor of Lavaca, as an example of how the sales tax makes up a large portion of a cities operating budget. Hardgrave told the crowd of more than 40 people that about 40% of Lavaca's budget comes directly from the tax.

Without renewal of the tax on May 14, he said his city would be hurting, listing what the tax provides Lavaca citizens and what would have to be cut should the tax not be renewed for a second 10-year term.

"What we do – it supplements the police and fire budgets in the general fund; it provides funds for park maintenance and new park equipment; it supplements sewer funds so customer rates can be lower; it supplements the street fund so the city can construct and improve streets and sidewalks; (and it) provides funds for the senior citizens building and maintenance, utilities and trash pickup," Hardgrave said. "And here's what we can't do without it – we would have a smaller police force with no funds to replace vehicles; we would be unable to purchase the needed equipment for the fire department; elimination of most capital improvements, such as projects for parks; elimination of funding for senior citizen services; sewer rates will increase; and we would be unable to continue to improve streets and sidewalks."

Due to the large number of projects that receive county funding in Lavaca, Hardgrave said it was imperative that the sales tax renewal pass.

"It's simple – we use it, we need it and I'll do all I can to make sure the people of Lavaca understand that it's essential for (the city)," he concluded.

Former Fort Smith Mayor Jack Freeze, co-chair of Protect Your Penny, said the most important thing for residents of Sebastian County to understand is that the 1% sales tax is nothing new.

"I wish to emphasize the word 'continue' because it is not a new tax. It has been in effect since 1994, almost 20 years," he said.

According to Freeze, voters in 2003 approved the continuation of the tax by a margin of 64% in favor of the tax and he said a continuation today was needed, as well.

He also told officials, such as mayors, city directors and police chiefs, that while Sebastian County votes on the tax, the tax burden does not fall squarely on the shoulders of Sebastian County residents.

"The good news is some of the tax is collected from people who live outside of the county," he said, alluding to residents across the region who spend their money in many Fort Smith and Sebastian County stores and restaurants.

Freeze said much of the funds brought in through the county sales tax are then bundled with grants to ensure any tax revenues are maximized to the fullest extent.

Should the tax not be renewed, Police Chief Kevin Lindsey of Fort Smith said his department would have to make drastic cuts. He said 45% of his department's operating budget was from the 1% sales tax.

"Without the county-wide sales tax, it would be very difficult to continue police department operations," he said bluntly, before urging citizens to vote 'yes' on the renewal.

Hudson said it would not only mean cuts to cities across the county, but services provided by his office and others in Sebastian County would also be cut.

"Without the revenues from the county sales tax, we would be forced to evaluate how to cut back our services, particularly in the vital areas of public safety – law enforcement, fire protection, operating the jail, operating the juvenile detention center. There are no good options in reducing those numbers of services, so it would be a very difficult task and one that would have negative consequences for people's wellbeing in our community as well as some of the other uses of the funds," he said. "Our mission is to make sure the citizens of the county understand the facts, that they're fully informed so they can vote with that knowledge to help us continue this revenue source so we can continue to provide the same level of services that we currently do."

So far, the Protect Your Penny Committee has collected $3,250 in donations for the sales tax renewal campaign. Six donors are listed in a March 14 report filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, with First National Bank of Fort Smith making the largest contribution of $1,000. The telephone number listed for the committee belongs to the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders, who is treasurer of the committee, said no public funds would be used in the campaign.

Early voting begins May 7 at Sebastian County Courthouses in Fort Smith and Greenwood. Election Day will be May 14 from 7:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. at all regular polling places.