Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen has asked for a public debate of the merits of a nine-month, one-cent sales tax that would benefit the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith. Museum officials responded with a moderated panel proposal.
McCutchen, founder of the Transparency in Government Group of Western Arkansas and part of an organized effort against the sales tax, sent Jim Dunn, president of the U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation, the letter Thursday (Feb. 7) asking for the debate.
“As you know, I am against the passage of the proposed sales tax that would benefit the marshalls (sic) museum. In this regard, I would like to hold a debate with you (or a designated representative of the museum) to discuss the issue. I think we both believe that the public is entitled to know all relevant factors in regard to the proposed tax. We can certainly work out all details, such as time, place, and moderators,” McCutchen said in the letter.
The Fort Smith Board of Directors in December approved an ordinance for a March 12 election on the tax. The ordinance governing the special election for the sales tax requires that the tax is imposed for only nine months. The museum foundation will pay the city’s cost of the special election.
If passed, the sales tax will raise around $16 million the remaining $17 million needed to complete the museum. The museum has raised enough money to pay for the construction of the facility, which began in July 2018. The remaining funds are needed to build the exhibits and “experience” of the museum. Revenue from the sales tax will complete the museum’s capital needs, the museum states on its website, where they also note that museum officials will not ask for a tax extension.
McCutchen and Robbie Wilson, one of the lead organizers of Citizens against Unfair Taxation, held a press conference Jan. 30 to state their reasons for opposition to the proposed Marshal Museum tax, noting that the museum was sold to Fort Smith citizens as a privately funded endeavor and that even a temporary tax would be highly detrimental to families who live paycheck to paycheck. The Fort Smith sales tax rate is 9.75%, which is a total of state, county and city sales tax. The proposed tax would raise the sales tax rate to 10.75%.
Those opposed to the tax hosted a panel discussion Jan. 31 at the Fort Smith Public Library with former State Sen. Frank Glidewell, Fort Smith Director George Catsavis and McCutchen on the panel.
Dunn responded to McCutchen’s request with a counter proposal of a moderated panel with three knowledgeable members of the museum’s staff and three opponents “to engage in civil dialogue.”
“Questions to each side should be permitted. Public input and coverage is a necessity. We are willing to consider other formats designed to inform the public,” Dunn said in a letter to McCutchen responding to the debate request.
“We have already had one community meeting where we invited people, whether for or against, to attend and ask questions. Two more community meetings are planned, on Feb. 13 at the Fort Smith Senior Center (on Cavanaugh Road), and on Feb. 27 at the Elm Grove Community Room at (Martin Luther King Jr.) Park. We will continue to welcome honest and sincere, civil questions from those who favor and oppose the proposal,” Dunn said in a letter to McCutchen responding to the debate request.
McCutchen said he was open to the idea of a panel discussion.
“My thoughts are whether a debate or a panel, the issue is more to shed sunshine on a proposed tax that would be hard on residents already faced with tremendously high utility rates and an already high tax rate,” McCutchen said.
In his letter, Dunn also questioned McCutchen’s motivation for the debate stating, “Before I had time to consider your offer to debate, I received an inquiry from a media outlet. This leads me to believe that your offer is not an honest and sincere attempt to secure facts, but rather to create a media event to further divide the community. My exposure to media debates is that the primary purpose is to posture. We will not participate in such an effort.”
McCutchen defending his desire debate or discussion, stating that it doesn’t matter to him whether it is a one-on-one debate or if it involves two, three or four people from each side as long as facts are brought to light and questions are answered.
“My goal is sunshine, to shed sunshine on the proposal, and to express how this is a bad idea that will hurt people already suffering from other white elephant projects (in the city),” McCutchen said.