The trail money money trail

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 116 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors may not have had a full battery of information when approving a ballot question seeking voter approval of a plan to spend more than $200 million in sales tax revenue collected during the next 10 years.

You, Kind Reader, would be justified in thinking my claim is a product of silly hyperbole; the musings of a hyper-critical soul sans critical thinking skills. But, hear me out, and let me repeat: The Fort Smith Board of Directors may not have had all pertinent information readily available when voting to seek voter approval of a plan to redirect 5% of the city’s 1% street tax program – with the 5% to fund an expanded trail and greenway system in the city.

Here’s your background: Funding for broad improvement and expansion of the city’s trail network could come from a portion of the about $20 million collected annually through the city’s 1-cent street sales tax program. The street tax, first approved by voters in 1985, has a sunset clause that requires voter approval every 10 years. The tax was renewed by voters in 1995 with 87.2% voting yes, and in 2005 with 66.3% voting yes. A renewal vote is planned for May 12.

Part of the May 12 ballot approved by the Board will also include a voter question on directing 5% of the tax collections – an estimated $10 million over 10 years – toward the multi-use trail system. A Trails & Greenway Committee developed a plan to add 35 miles to the city’s trail system, and maintain and improve existing trails. That committee estimated the work could cost between $17.4 million and $9.6 million.

Please know this is not a message against trails. You get no debate from me about the intrinsic and intangible value of a quality trail system. The Razorback Regional Greenway trail system in Northwest Arkansas provides a clear and immediate example of why Fort Smith must invest in a similar network. Incentives to grow an economy should be less about recruiting corporations and more about recruiting the type of talented people the corporations seek.

Instead, this essay is part of an ongoing series about frequent and wide disparities between what we hear from city staff and a few Board members, and what we later learn to be closer to reality.

In campaign literature prior to a March 2012 vote in which Fort Smith voters approved a broad package of infrastructure and recreational improvements through a 1% sales tax extension, city officials promised that part of an estimated $22.5 million the Parks & Recreation department would receive over 10 years would be used for trails and greenways. Based on capital improvement plans and other literature, a rough calculation shows trails/greenways spending of about $3.4 million in the first five years of collections, with that amount possibly reaching $4.5 million (or more) in the final five years. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to believe the 2012 tax package approved by voters could provide at least $7.9 million for trails, with the capacity to direct up to $10 million over 10 years to an enhanced trail system. In other words, the city may already have the money for the low end of the cost range ($9.6 million) and may need less than the $10 million to hit the high end of the cost range.

However, possible trail funding from the 2012 tax vote was not part of the documents provided by city staff to City Directors prior to the public discussion and public vote on redirecting 5% of the street tax to trails. Also, a full accounting of funding possible from the 2012 tax extension was not made to the Board during the public discussions. It seemed an odd omission.

With that as background, this was the question asked of all seven City Directors: “During your private consideration and public discussion about redirecting a portion of the street tax collections toward trails and greenways, were you advised and/or otherwise aware of the between $5 million and $10 million potentially allocated to trails and greenways from proceeds of the tax program approved by voters in 2012?”

Only Directors Keith Lau, Mike Lorenz and Kevin Settle responded. Of the three, Lau offered the only direct answer to the question. Lau wrote: “During our discussions I was not advised a portion of the 2012 voter approved tax was being used for trails and greenway. I was aware a portion of the tax was going to the parks department for the trails. It was a budgeted item in the 2015 Parks budget.”

Settle’s response was less direct, but posited a reasonable rationale. He essentially said trails are good and if voters approve the 5% redirection then trails are built faster and “it would allow for the park commission to use more funds to make our parks system better for all Fort Smith citizens.”

The response from Lorenz was a gift. It was the gloves that fit. After a lengthy note about why trails are good – which was not part of the question – Lorenz challenged my estimate with this statement: “Therefore your quote ‘between $5 million and $10 million potentially allocated to trails and greenways’ is not an accurate statement as you are referring to the entire 1/8 cent tax that is dedicated to parks in general.”

Which is wrong. Wrong by a lot. The 1/8 cent generates about $2.5 million annually for the parks system, or about $25 million over the 10 year life of the tax. What we have then is a Director voting on the May 12 ballot question who did not/does not fully understand revenue and spending plans from the 2012 tax vote.

“Am glad you pointed out the inaccuracy of my estimate because it serves as an example of the potential for confusion among citizens/voters,” I noted in a reply to Lorenz. “Your answer certainly shed much light on the true purpose of my question.”

The good people who put in a lot of hard work crafting a plan to modernize our trail system, and the good people of this city who have time and again stepped up to approve taxes to fund critical infrastructure deserve better fiscal leadership when it comes to crafting a 10-year plan to collect and spend more than $200 million.

This inadequate assessment of funds available for trails will not cause me to vote against a 5% redirection of the 1% street tax, but it does make one lean toward supporting the effort to change Fort Smith’s form of government.

From water true ups to legal fees to water park costs (just to name a few financial miscues), Fort Smith citizens have seen enough surprises when it comes to budgets, anticipated costs, and other spending plans and promises.

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