A sparse crowd on Monday night heard from Jonesboro city officials as well as residents on the pros and cons of a proposed one-cent sales tax that will be decided by voters later this year.
Jonesboro voters head to the polls Nov. 10 to decide the fate of the tax, which is expected to bring in roughly $16.4 million a year. The proceeds from the tax, which would begin April 1, 2016 and sunset March 31, 2026, will go toward two goals – roads and economic development. Seven-eighths of one percent will be set aside for roads, while the remaining one-eighth will go toward economic development.
The crowd of about 40 at the Jonesboro High School auditorium heard from Mayor Harold Perrin, former city finance director Ben Barylske and local attorney Robert Jones.
Jones said the one-eighth, which would bring in about $2 million a year, will go toward creating the Economic Development Corporation of Jonesboro. The group would be a public corporation with a seven-member board appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. Jones said the corporation will seek to help develop new sites for industry, develop the infrastructure to support business and build job and workforce training.
“It is all about jobs. It is about jobs, jobs and more jobs,” Jones said of the corporation’s goal.
Jones said other areas in Northeast Arkansas, like Cross County, Greene County, Mississippi County and West Memphis, have developed similar plans with positive results. He was asked a question by the audience about available land in Jonesboro for economic development. Jones said the city has only one site greater than 100 acres, which would be used to bring a company like Frito-Lay to the region.
Harold Carter of Jonesboro questioned Jones, saying that “an economic development corporation can do almost anything” and asked Jones who would oversee the board. Jones countered that state law covers the creation of an economic development corporation and that specifics would have to be compiled before any incentive money would be released. The corporation, whose meetings would be open to the public, would also face audits from state legislators while board members could be removed for wrongdoing.
Perrin spoke Monday about the 18 road projects that would be funded through the seven-eighths of 1%. The road portion of the tax is expected to bring in about $14.4 million a year, city officials have said.
At the meeting, both Perrin and Barylske said the rate of return on tax collections was estimated at 1.75% a year based on conservative budgeting.
The projects that are being considered by city officials and the estimated cost for each are:
· Ark. 18 Railroad Overpass – $15 million.
· U.S. 49 and Ark. 351 Improvements – $51 million.
· Ark. 18 at Caraway Road – $4 million.
· U.S. 49 at Southwest Drive and Parker Road – $4 million.
· Ark. 18 at Southwest Drive and Main Street – $2.5 million.
· Ark. 351 Railroad Overpass – $6.2 million.
· Ark. 18 Widening – $6.6 million.
· U.S. 63 at U.S. 49 interchange – $2 million.
· Ark. 91 (Dan Avenue) Railroad Overpass – $34.5 million.
· Ark. 18 South (Commerce Drive) – $43 million.
· Ark. 91 and Ark. 141 – $1.4 million.
· Kersey Cove Extension – $2.5 million.
· Kellers Chapel Road Extension – $7.8 million.
· Bowling Lane Connection – $5.4 million.
· Gee Street Railroad Overpass – $8.5 million.
· South Caraway Road Widening – $7.5 million.
· Patrick Street Widening – $33.2 million.
· Race Street Widening – $6.5 million.
Perrin said the proceeds from the sales tax will allow the city “to put some skin in the game” when it comes to additional highway funding from either the state or federal government. However, some who attended the meeting asked why the sales tax increase was being considered as well as whether or not the U.S. 49/Ark. 351 improvements were being done to benefit other people.
“To furnish the road for real estate developers, it is not fair to ask the citizens of Jonesboro (to pay for it),” said Ed Wiseman of Jonesboro.
Perrin countered that Ark. 351 has been a dangerous road in Northeast Arkansas for some time, with traffic increasing. At least two churches have built sanctuaries along the road in recent years, while a Jonesboro police officer was recently hit during a head-on collision on the road, Perrin said. He also noted that any decision on the road’s route would be left up to the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.
As for funding, Barylske said the 1.75% figure was lower than the 10-year average of 3% a year on sales taxes due to “being more reasonable.”
Barylske was asked by moderator Roy Ockert about whether or not the city considered a bond issue to help pay for construction. Barylske said officials checked with several brokers, who told the city that the financing charges for a $125 million bond issue over 10 years would be about $25 million.
“That would be enough for two more overpasses,” Barylske said.
Perrin said he was thankful to be able to make his case for the Nov. 10 vote.
“I love it because we had dialogue,” Perrin said, noting there were a lot of good questions and answers at the meeting.
The meeting Monday was the first of three forums over the next month or so to discuss the issue.
A meeting for Wards 2 and 3 will be held at 6:30 p.m. Monday (Oct. 5) at the Jonesboro Public Works building on Dan Avenue while a meeting for Wards 5 and 6 will be at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Nettleton Performing Arts Center on Chieftain Lane.