Riff Raff: A welcome pivot

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,072 views 

Self-recognizing a hubris-induced mistake and turning to humility-driven corrective collaboration often results in a better outcome. So it is with the Fort Smith Board of Directors and their collective pivot on a request that city voters approve a sales tax extension.

The board voted Nov. 16 to approve an election on two sales tax extensions – one of 0.25% for the fire department and parks department, and one of 0.75% for federal consent decree work and the police department – for 10 years that would raise more than $250 million over the life of the taxes. Not only did they violate the open meetings provision of Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but the board approved the tax extensions for a Feb. 8 special election without public input. (The court would rule the board did not violate the FOIA, but sometimes a court gets it wrong.)

And by “without” public input, I mean none. Zero. Zip. Around $300 million in tax dollars were being solicited and you, Kind Fort Smith voters who will pay around half the tax total, were not considered. Pay up and shut up, thank you very much.

We and many other folks called the board on their collective arrogance. To their credit and my sincere surprise, the board changed course and voted to halt the Feb. 8 election. They sought public input in several public hearings. They used such input to bring a compromise plan to voters. (And, on another parenthetical note, it was the board, and NOT the city administration that favored a course correction. That’s an issue for another day.)

This new plan, approved unanimously Feb. 22, has eight-year extensions of the two taxes instead of 10, which lowers tax revenue collected to a little more than $200 million. That vote will be held with the May 24 Arkansas primary election.

More importantly the board has agreed to stipulations that, while not on the ballot, should give voters some assurance the tax revenues will be spent according to Hoyle. One plan is to establish a tax advisory committee to meet on a regular schedule to monitor collections and spending. That committee will provide practical and potentially innovative feedback if responsible folks are appointed.

The board also agreed to place a three-year freeze on sewer rates – following consent decree required rate hikes of more than 160% in recent years. If future boards within the eight year tax extension raise rates more than 3.5%, the 0.75% tax comes off the books.

A committee and hold-fast sewer rate plan were to be considered during the board’s March 1 board meeting. As of this writing, only the tax committee resolution is on the March 1 agenda. I’ve been told language for the sewer rate cap is being written and the board is not backing away from it.

If the board follows through with the voter assurance plans, I encourage voters to vote for the tax extensions. The revenue will do much to ensure quality and quantity with critical public services and help fund efforts to meet the federal mandate to fix the city’s antiquated sewer system. There is no cheap or easy path for a city that seeks to foster economic and cultural development, and recruit and retain creative folks.

And, again, kudos to the Fort Smith Board for taking the time and energy to nix their original plan, listen to citizens, and then bring a better product to voters. Let’s hope for lessons learned by all involved and let’s hope voters on May 24 recognize a good deal for the city’s future.