There will be no public debate between those who oppose and those who support extension of a 1/4 cent sales tax in Sebastian County that generates about $6 million in revenue for the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
When Westark College joined the University of Arkansas system and set to transition to a four-year institution, the college was no longer eligible to receive millage revenue. Sebastian County voters approved a ¼-cent sales tax to go into effect Jan. 1, 2002, the same day the institution became the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith in order to help fund the transition and growth of the university. That sales tax sunsets Jan. 1, 2022. Arkansas Act 1087 of 2013 gave UAFS the authority to request a sales-tax extension for 10 years.
The question will be on the Nov. 3 general election ballot in Sebastian County.
Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, chairman of Citizens Against Unfair Taxes, challenged Friends of UAFS to debate the topic but that challenge was not accepted. Michael Barr, president of Harry G. Barr Co., and co-chair of Friends of UAFS, told McCutchen the benefit of the tax speaks for itself.
“Thank you for reaching out and I wanted to acknowledge that I had received your email. While I respect your decision to advocate against the extension of the Sebastian County Sales/Use Tax benefitting the University of Arkansas Fort Smith, our committee nor any anyone affiliated with our campaign will be participating in a public forum. The positive aspects of the support for UAFS and its overwhelming benefit for the county are being communicated in multiple venues to the voters and we’ll let them make their decision on the upcoming ballot,” Barr noted in a statement.
McCutchen said “it is simply arrogant for Friends of UAFS to refuse to answer tough questions about the tax in a public forum.” He also said his group is not against adequate funding for the university, but believes the tax is the wrong source for the revenue.
“Citizens Against Unfair Tax is not opposed to UAFS receiving the same funds that the tax generates, but believes that the money should come from the State of Arkansas’ sales tax revenues similar to state funding at the UA-Fayetteville, UA-Pine Bluff, and UALR. We believe that it is fear mongering to suggest that UAFS will make less of an impact on our Sebastian County community if the tax issue does not pass because the revenue will be generated from state revenues. In addition, we believe it is irresponsible to suggest that any potential revenue shortfalls will be made up through tuition increases,” McCutchen said in a press statement.
As of Sept. 14, Friends of UAFS had raised $106,000 to campaign for renewal of the tax. Citizens Against Unfair Taxes filed an organization statement Oct. 9 with the Arkansas Ethics Commission that shows McCutchen as chair, Mark McCourt as vice chair and Frank Glidewell as secretary-treasurer. Committee members listed in addition to the officers were Peggy Jeffries, Becky Leach, Bob Newbold, Melissa O’Neal, Stacy Ralston and Jack Swink. Citizens Against Unfair Taxes did not file a financial statement with its organizational filing.