Benton County voters reject temporary sales tax hike

by Paul Gatling ( 1,038 views 

Benton County voters on Tuesday (March 12) roundly rejected a temporary sales-tax increase to help finance construction of a new courthouse.

The complete but unofficial vote totals, according to the Benton County Election Commission:
FOR: 3,714 (38.02%)
AGAINST: 6,055 (61.98%)

Most voters stayed home. The issue brought just 6% of the county’s 161,802 registered voters to the polls, and only 4,999 ballots were cast on a mostly rainy election day in Benton County, the second-most populous county in the state. There were 4,785 ballots cast during a week-long early voting period.

“I am disappointed,” Benton County Judge Barry Moehring said. “But I absolutely respect the result of the voters and I respect the process. Secondly, citizens in Benton County need to be assured that we will continue to hold court. Our circuit court judges, their staffs, the county prosecutor and his staff, the public defenders, circuit court clerks and sheriff’s office do a remarkable job for us with the facilities they currently have. They will continue to do that while we assess what the next steps might be.”

The one-eighth cent sales tax increase was put before voters as a funding mechanism to help pay for a new courts facility near the downtown square on Northeast Second Street, across from the current Benton County Courthouse.

The sales tax was to be for 54 months (4.5 years) and was expected to raise $25 million for the estimated $30 million project. Private donations totaling $3 million were pledged — including $2 million from the Walton Family Foundation — to help offset the project cost.

The expansion and modernization plan included an estimated 400 new parking spaces, more space and consolidation for prosecutors and public defenders, and space for the expected addition of circuit court judges courtesy of the county’s rapid population growth.

The Benton County population was around 35,000 in 1928 when the courthouse was built in downtown Bentonville. The population less than 90 years later has grown almost eight times the size to an estimated mark of 266,300 in 2017.

“The courthouse was originally constructed for only one judge and a single courtroom,” according to language on the “Better Courthouse, Better Benton County” website advocating for passage of the tax. “Today, there are three Circuit Judges in the courthouse with two of them in rooms that were not originally built to be courtrooms. Benton County’s Circuit Judges already have the highest population per capita in the state, and since growth is not slowing down, the existing facilities are simply unable to accommodate further growth.”

A new courts facility would have housed up to eight judges. And instead of numerous security checkpoints for the courts, the new facility was designed with just one checkpoint.

Moehring, who was first elected judge in November 2016 and easily won re-election this past November with 74% of the vote, said he and his staff will go back to the drawing board following Tuesday’s vote.

“I think there were some strong messages in the vote,” he said. “One is that voters don’t want a new tax. Understandably so. There’s probably some controversy around the facility being in downtown Bentonville. We’ll have to take that all into account. But these are not cheap buildings and this problem is not going to solve itself. Whether it’s a long-term bond that has some huge financial implications, or a new revenue source that has huge financial implications. The building won’t build itself.

“There’s going to have to be some give on the finances somewhere. I am concerned that the next proposal will actually be more expensive than this proposal. And by a wide margin.”