March 12 special election to decide U.S. Marshals Museum tax

by Tina Alvey Dale ( 679 views 

Fort Smith voters will decide on March 12 whether or not there will be a nine-month, non-renewable, one-cent city sales tax to benefit the U.S. Marshals Museum.

The Fort Smith Board of Directors voted 6-1 at the regular board meeting Tuesday (Dec. 18) night to approve an ordinance calling for the special election. Director George Catsavis, Ward 4, voted against the ordinance.

The United States Marshals Museum Foundation will pay the city’s cost of the special election.

“With only $17 million left to raise, it’s time to ensure the USMM legacy is established as an anchor for economic development and impact in Fort Smith, as well as a hub for civic literacy across the city, the region, and the nation,” supporting documentation for the request stated. Construction of the museum formally launched in July.

The approximately $15-$16 million in revenues the tax would generate would go to finish the remainder of the USMM project, which will be located near the Arkansas River in the city’s historic downtown area.

Museum budget figures place the total project cost at around $49.266 million, down almost $10 million from estimates two years ago. The previous figure included over $5 million in land donations. Adding those back into the budget places the total project cost around $54 million, with the museum picking up about $4 million in savings through a design retool and value engineering, it has been previously reported.

To date, nearly $35.4 million has been raised in cash, pledges and in-kind land. Of that, 54% came from Fort Smith/Van Buren and 23% came from the state of Arkansas, the information said.

“The Arkansas Constitution and law enacted by the Arkansas Legislature require that public funds (proceeds from a Gross Receipts or Sales Tax) be expended for public purposes. If expended for a facility, the property may be owned by a ‘Public Facilities Board’ (PFB),” documents presented to the board said.

“The revenue from the requested sunset tax will be used to fund the production of the museum experience (exhibits), FFE (Fixtures, Furniture & Equipment), startup costs, working capital/cash reserves, and remaining contingency,” the supporting documents said.

The supporting documentation for the request also states that a Public Facilities Board comprised of community residents will own the USMM building and grounds and it will be outside of the control of the City of Fort Smith Government.

Several Fort Smith residents attended Tuesday’s meeting both in favor and against the special election for the temporary one-cent sales tax.

Judy McReynolds, chairman, president and chief executive officer of ArcBest Corp., and Cody Faber with the Fort Smith National Historic Site, addressed the board in favor of the election and the tax.

“The National Historic Site itself has over 130,000 we see every year. … We see people from all over the country, all over the world. … My question when they come to visit us is: ‘where are you headed?’ It’s not, ‘why are you here?’ We are not a destination town, yet,” Faber said. “We have an awesome opportunity to become just that.”

The museum tax would allow the museum to open on time and allow Fort Smith to become more of a tourist destination, supporters said.

Charlotte Tidwell, director of Antioch for Youth and Family, sent a letter that McReynolds read to the board that lauded the educational opportunities the museum would offer to area elementary, junior high and senior high students.

Four residents addressed the board opposing the special election and the tax.

Melissa Woodall said a special election should be reserved for special circumstances.

“If we are going to impose a higher tax rate, we need to make it for something that is a higher priority for our citizens,” Woodall said.

Charles Rock said the tax would be akin to residents paying for a business.

Other questions raised included the lack of city oversight and when taxation on the residents would end.

“I’m not against the Marshals Museum, but if they did not have all the money needed, they should not have poured any concrete. They shouldn’t have put one stick up,” said Fort Smith resident Gary Henry.

Jim Dunn, president of the U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation, said the museum foundation had raised enough money to construct the building but does not have enough to finish building the exhibits or experience, and that both needed to be built in a manner to entice visitors to the museum.

Speaking on behalf of the tax, director and vice-mayor Kevin Settle said a lot of false information regarding the tax had been circulating on social media and in the public.

First, the tax, if passed, would be a one-time, non-renewable tax that would be levied beginning July 1 and expire permanently March 31, 2020. The board of directors could not renew it under any circumstances.

Second, the idea that a special election is skewed in favor of those wanting the tax was inaccurate as all legal voters living in Fort Smith would have the chance to vote in the election, Settle said.

“To not allow this vote to go to the citizens of Fort Smith is irresponsible,” Settle said.

To not vote for the tax would hurt the city, he added, saying it is what is best to allow the city to continue to grow and improve.

The museum will feature five immersive galleries: Defining Marshals; The Campfire: Stories Under the Stars; Frontier Marshals; A Changing Nation; and Modern Marshals. It will also include a National Learning Center, Hall of Honor, conference rooms, general office space, retail space and a large lobby for community partnerships.

Additionally, it will feature an exterior dining area, green-space, full-service restaurant, and a monument donated by the Five Tribes. Los Angeles-based Thinkwell: The Experience Co. are designers of the exhibits and will use subcontractors for the installations.

Prior to the meeting, outgoing directors Tracy Pennartz and Don Hutchings and outgoing Mayor Sandy Sanders were honored for their service to the city of Fort Smith.

“I want you to know we have great people working for the city. They are dedicated and strive to do the best job possible for the citizens of Fort Smith. The objective is to do the right thing for the city,” Sanders said in his farewell address.

“Board members are dedicated and spend many hours working on behalf of the people of Fort Smith. Board members have to make hard decisions, but if we do what’s in the best interests of the City, we’ll be successful. Fort Smith is an outstanding city, and it has been an honor to serve as your mayor,” Sanders added.