Battle to consolidate Walnut Ridge/Hoxie about to come to a head

by George Jared ([email protected]) 443 views 

When legislator and attorney H.L. Ponder arrived at the capitol in Little Rock in 1903, he had one piece of legislation he wanted passed. His father founded the town of Walnut Ridge, and the son hoped to consolidate it with the nearby town, Hoxie. He formulated a bill that would allow any two towns in Arkansas to consolidate if they were one mile apart or less. It passed, and the bill named the Walnut-Ridge-Hoxie Consolidation Act became law.

It’s been 114 years and the two namesakes on that law are still two separate towns, even though many other towns have joined because of the law. There’s a growing movement in the heart of Lawrence County to unite the two municipalities. Two separate committees in each town have formed to study the impacts. The Walnut Ridge-Hoxie Consolidation Committee, formed by Walnut Ridge residents, has released a report detailing what could happen if the two municipalities merge.

“We’re not hear to voice a recommendation … our purpose was to determine if it’s doable,” committee member Jon Walter said at a community meeting Thursday night.

Walnut Ridge has a population of about 5,000 residents, while Hoxie has about 3,000. A combined town would be the 11th largest in Northeast Arkansas, and the 46th largest in the state. It would be larger than nearby Pocahontas, Newport, and would be almost as big as Wynne.

Committee members used audit findings from both cities during the last five years to gauge potential economic impacts to the cities. Walnut Ridge had annual revenues of $2.238 million in 2016, with $2.011 million in expenses. Hoxie had $844,000 in revenues, but had $859,000 in expenses, according to the findings.

If the two towns consolidate and eliminate the replication of some services within the fire, police, and sanitation departments, the new town could have revenues around $2.950 million, with projected expenses of $2.525 million, committee member John Householder told the crowd. That would be a surplus of about $279,525, but it’s only an estimate, he said.

Fees, water, and sanitation rates differ slightly in both towns, but would virtually remain the same. Walnut Ridge has an ISO rating of 3, while Hoxie has an ISO rating of 5. There’s a lot of difference between the two, meaning Walnut Ridge residents and business owners pay less for insurance based on those ratings. How much it could potentially save Hoxie residents is hard to calculate, Householder said, but it will be lower if the requirements for the lower ISO rating can be applied to Hoxie. ISO ratings are based on several factors including the fire department operations, hydrant availability, and water line pressure. Many water lines in Hoxie would have to be replaced.

Hoxie’s property taxes would slightly lower from 1.6 mills, to 1 mill.

One of the most striking facts came to light during the study, Householder said. Hoxie only generates about $15,000 per month in sales tax revenues, while Walnut Ridge generates about $70,000 per month. Even if the two joined, the combined sales tax numbers would still drag far behind Pocahontas, which would have almost 1,500 fewer residents. In fact, the town would be 11th in population in the region, but would only be 16th in generating sales tax revenue.

The problem is that many companies, such as fast-food chains only consider towns with certain population levels, Walter said. A lot of times they only look at the bottom-line population number and don’t consider proximity to other population groups. Many companies looking to locate in a particular area want that total number to be at a certain level.

Another group has formed to study the issue. The Hoxie Consolidation Committee, led by Hoxie residents and civic leaders is studying the issue, committee member Lida Tinker told Talk Business & Politics. There are two issues that trouble the committee the most, she said. It’s possible that many if not all Hoxie city employees will lose their jobs, and locals don’t want to lose their sense of control, and community, she said.

“I’m not saying there wouldn’t be some advantages … but we want people to understand this isn’t going to solve all the problems in both towns, and it could create other ones,” Tinker said. “We want to make sure the information that is being shared with the public is accurate and valid.”

Her committee was formed recently, and it will take several months to pull together all the facts and figures they can. Rumors have run rampant that Hoxie has depleted its coffers, and the Walnut Ridge water and sewer systems are in much better shape, Tinker said.

Hoxie has almost $1 million in total reserves, and no one has been able to definitively say which town has worse water and sewer problems, she said. Her committee hopes to take several months to study the problem, but it may have to be a shorter timeline. There are those in both communities who are ready to start petition drives.

At least 97 Hoxie residents who voted in the last election have to sign the petition, and 220 Walnut Ridge residents have to sign the petition to get it onto a special election ballot. If both cities approve the measure, voters will get the chance to decide on a new town name. If both voting blocks can’t decide, the newly formed town will be called Walnut Ridge, per state law.

A new city council will have to be elected immediately afterwards, and the larger town, Walnut Ridge, will draw the ward lines. If it happens within 18 months or sooner of the 2018 general election, Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp would simply become the mayor in the new town. If it occurs more than 18 months out, a special mayoral election would have to be held.

Walnut Ridge will have to pay the estimated $25,000 special election fee, if consolidation comes to a vote. If the measure fails, the two towns will have to wait two years to try again. Tinker doesn’t know how her town, a place she’s lived her entire life, will sway.

“We really want to retain our identity,” she said.

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