Fort Smith voters reject Marshals Museum tax by a wide margin

by Michael Tilley (mtilley@talkbusiness.net) 3,013 views 

Fort Smith voters rejected a one-cent, nine-month sales tax that would have raised an estimated $16 million for completion of the U.S. Marshals Museum. Unofficial results showed that 64.7% of voters were against the tax.

The tally as of 9:05 p.m. from the Sebastian County Clerk’s office showed that 6,153 voted against the tax and 3,355 voted for the tax. That tally showed a total of 9,518 votes, or 20.2% of registered voters. (The final tally was 6,726 against and 3,670 for. The 10,408 total votes was 22% of registered voters. The final tally did not change the percentages.)

Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, who along with Robbie Wilson managed the campaign against the tax, said the election outcome shows that Fort Smith citizens opposed the tax and not necessarily the museum.

“The people of Fort Smith have spoken loudly and have said they don’t support a regressive tax,” McCutchen told Talk Business & Politics. “There is no doubt that I support the Marshals Museum. … We just don’t support the public paying for it.”

Continuing, McCutchen noted: “I respect many folks on the other side of this issue, but like I said, it was a matter of who was paying for it. … The Marshals Museum is going to be built. It was going to be built with or without this tax. That (tax) was just a short cut.”

Jim Dunn, president of the U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation, said the election outcome was disappointing but now is the time for citizens to “unite” and help complete the museum.

“We are disappointed that tonight’s outcome was not favorable. We are heartened by the many expressions of support by even those who opposed our effort. We’ve overcome many obstacles to get this far and we ask that all citizens of Fort Smith unite and help complete the Museum as soon as possible,” Dunn said in a statement.

The Fort Smith Board of Directors in December approved an ordinance for Tuesday’s (March 12) election on the tax. Early voting began March 5. The ordinance governing the special election for the sales tax required that the tax is imposed for only nine months. The museum foundation will pay the city’s cost of the special election. The sales tax was estimated to raise around $16 million of the remaining $17 million needed to complete the museum. The museum has raised enough money – $35.5 million – to pay for construction of the facility, which began in July 2018. The remaining funds are needed to build the exhibits and “experience” of the museum.

Cost per resident ranged between $10 and $400 according to an estimate from the city of Fort Smith. Rusty Myers, former economic development director with the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, estimated that only half of the tax revenue is paid by city residents. Based on his formula, city residents would pay $8 million of the $16 million the tax would generate, or about $91 per person. The estimate also shows the average household – there were 35,278 households in the latest Census estimate – would pay $227 extra if the tax is approved.

In January 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service selected Fort Smith as the site for the national museum. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held in September 2015 on a site near the Arkansas River in downtown Fort Smith, and museum officials initially hoped to have the facility open by late 2017. Fundraising delays pushed the opening date of the estimated 50,000-square-foot facility to September 2019. A call for the tax came after fundraising efforts fell short of closing the gap.

Following is the list of top 10 known and anonymous donors as of Feb. 12, 2019.
• State of Arkansas: $8.342 million. 
State funding began Nov. 9, 2007, with a $200,000 check. There were eight other checks from the state to the foundation with the most recent being $1 million dated Nov. 30, 2018.
• Anonymous donor: $6.1 million
• Walton Family Foundation: $2 million
• Pendergraft Family: $1.025 million
• First National Bank of Fort Smith: $1.014 million
• Anonymous donor: $802,500
• Anonymous donor: $602,500
• CoreCivic: $505,000
CoreCivic is a Nashville, Tenn.-based prison management company.
• Stephens Production Co.: $502,500
• Anonymous donor: $500,000

The museum is estimated to operate on a $2.5 million annual budget. Projections cap annual fundraising needs at $600,000 with the remainder of the required revenue being earned through admission, retail and food and drink sales, facility rentals and special programs and events, including spring and summer camps.