The Fort Smith Central Business Improvement District Commission approved a resolution that could lead to 6 mil assessment on property in the district in 2021 which could fund a “Safety and Security” program for the downtown district.
According to state law, there are two types of assessments that can be levied against real property inside a city’s improvement district – a project/improvement-specific assessment, levied to fund a “specific ‘plan of improvement,’” or a supplemental annual assessment to be used for ongoing operations or maintenance activities, Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said in in August 2019, when the board voted to pursue an assessment on downtown business. At the time Bill Hanna, CBID board chair, said the Fort Smith CBID is one of the few in the state not funded by an assessment.
The CBID commission, which approved the assessment Tuesday (Nov. 17) during a regular monthly meeting, plans to use monies garnered from an assessment to fund an ambassador program that would hire off-duty police officers as part of a Safety and Security program for downtown. That program would cost about $136,000 annually, according to a proposed operating budget.
The assessment would also fund a Green and Clean project that would include streetscape maintenance and landscaping, which could incorporate care of flowerbeds as well as pruning and possible replacement of trees, cleaning and repairs to benches, lighting and trash receptacles, litter control, conversion of lights along Garrison Avenue to LED and more, Dingman said. The CBID would need about $300,000 to fund both programs, Dingman said.
Based on property valuations in 2019, each 1-mil assessment on properties within the CBID would amount to $38,834.47 in annual operating revenue, Dingman said. However, that estimate did not take into account any property owned by not for profit agencies or local, state or federal government. There are 470 individual parcels in the CBID. Of those, 115 are tax-exempt and have no value assigned to them. These include properties owned by governments, non-profits, churches, etc., according to information provided by the CBID.
Earlier this year, the CBID hired Total Assessment Solutions (TAS), Sebastian County’s contracted third-party appraisal partner, to assess those properties.
Looking at the total appraised property, each 1-mil assessment on all properties within the CBID would amount to approximately $61,000. However, some of those properties would be exempt from the assessment. While government properties would continue to be exempt from the assessment, not for profit entities would not be, said Michelle Allgood, the attorney working with the CBID on the assessment question.
“This is not an ad valorem tax. They would be exempt under Arkansas law as a non-profit from ad valorem taxation. This is an assessment that is based on the benefits that these entities, these nonprofits and these for profit entities, are receiving from the operations of the district,” Allgood said.
Dingman said while exact figures have not been tabulated, each 1-mil assessment on all non-exempt property within the district would raise approximately $50,000. With that information in mind, the CBID board voted to draw up a petition that states an assessment not to exceed 10-mill annually and that the exact amount of the assessment would be evaluated and set annually in order to raise funds needed for CBID programs. They voted to set the assessment for 2021 at 6 mills.
Before an assessment can be levied, more than 50% of property owners in the district must sign a petition agreeing to an assessment. The CBID board of directors would then present that petition and the plan to the Fort Smith City Board of Directors. Dingman said under the state law if the CBID has the required signatures on the petition, the city’s BOD would be compelled to approve the assessment as an ordinance.
The board directed Allgood to draw up the petition, so they could begin gathering signatures and get the petition to the Fort Smith board of directors in time for the assessment to be levied in 2021. The commission agreed there needs to be transparency in the assessment and what it will fund.
“We need to have a public hearing and a couple of meetings to brief everyone. Then we need to divide it up and … make contact with every (property owner), so they have a voice in fairness to express their feelings and hopefully they will sign (the petition),” said Commissioner Phil White.
Commissioner Steve Clark said the CBID needs to have an annual meeting to discuss the coming year’s programs and what millage rate would be needed to fund those programs before the coming year’s millage is set.
The ambassador program, which the assessment would fund, would hire off-duty police officers as part of a Safety and Security program. This program would help control the vagrancy issue created by the homeless in Fort Smith’s downtown area, the board has said. Rick Griffin, downtown property owner, and Jana Mundy, property manager for Griffin Properties of Fort Smith, addressed the board about growing concerns related to the downtown homeless population.
Griffin said many of the homeless now living along and just north of Garrison Avenue have been “kicked out” of Riverview Hope Campus, a social services campus in Fort Smith where regional partners offer comprehensive assistance to the homeless. Griffin said these people are causing a safety and sanitary issue downtown because people who live in the area are becoming afraid to go out to their dumpster areas, which some homeless have started using as a place to live and sleep and use as bathrooms.
“Long term effect for us is that if we are not able to address the problem, it’s going to diminish the traffic to downtown. It will lower property values and reduce renters because (owners) will have a hard time convincing people to rent when they don’t feel safe going downtown,” Griffin said.
Mundy raised concerns about the time it will take to get an ambassador program started downtown because assessment monies will not be collected until October 2021. Fort Smith Chief of Police Danny Baker said the Fort Smith Police Department is already working to begin the ambassador program.
“The police department is doing all we can to alleviate this. One thing we hope to solidify before the end of the year is to make a downtown ambassador position (in FSPD),” Baker said.
The department’s meter enforcement position has been vacant for “quite a while,” Baker said. He is working to rework that position into an ambassador position with added responsibilities. The person in the position would continue to enforce downtown parking meters as well as other duties related to downtown and should act as a deterrent to some of the issues faced downtown. The Fort Smith parks department office at the Riverfront Park is being transformed into a space for the ambassador program, Baker said. The ambassador would not be a sworn police officer but would have full FSPD communication capabilities, which would allow police officers to be called in for backup when needed in dealing with vagrants and criminal matters.
“I only have one position right now, but I hope to get it finalized by the end of the year or first of next year,” Baker said. “Basically it will take the parking meter position up a notch or two, and this will help to see how the ambassador program will work.”
The assessment would allow for the ambassador program to grow to more than one person, because one person cannot cover the downtown area all the time.
“This will be a way to provide an ambassador to start the program through the police department. We already have money set aside for the position. Not to say by any means that this is a be all to end all, but hopefully it is a step in the right direction,” Baker said.
Hanna also said that while assessment funds will not be available until October, funding could be obtained earlier than October for the ambassador program through loans and other avenues if there is approval of the assessment.