Fort Smith voters on Tuesday (May 24) extended two sales tax extensions that will pay for federally mandated sewer system improvements, an across-the-board police pay increase of 23.87%, fire department needs, and ongoing and future parks improvements.
Two ballot items were on the ballot for city residents, with one tax request renewing a 0.25% sales tax to be evenly allocated between the city’s fire department and city’s parks and recreation department. Collections of that tax will begin Sept. 30, 2022, and sunset Sept. 20, 2030. The tax generated $6.533 million in 2021.
The second tax request extends a 0.75% sales tax from Jan. 1, 2023, to Dec. 31, 2030, with 83.3% of the revenue going to federal consent decree work on the city’s water and sewer system, and 16.7% directed to the police department. The tax generated $19.6 million in 2021.
Following are the vote counts, with 100% of precincts reporting, for the two sales tax extensions.
• 0.25% sales tax extension (fire department, parks and rec department)
• 0.75% sales tax extension (sewer system work, police department)
“I’m very pleased with the effort made by the Board of Directors to provide information to the voters of Fort Smith did convince them to pass the two taxes. I think this puts Fort Smith in a good position for the future, and I’m gratified that the citizens chose to pass these taxes,” Fort Smith City Director Lavon Morton told Talk Business & Politics.
Morton also said his next goal is push the city to be more transparent as to how the millions of dollars are spent to repair the city’s sewer system.
“I am absolutely committed that we are more transparent in all the city’s finances. … It’s important that we rebuild trust in city government and I’m committed to that,” he said.
CONSENT DECREE WORK
After years of failing to maintain water and sewer infrastructure to federal standards, the city entered into a federal consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Department of Justice in late 2014. The consent decree required the city to make an estimated $480 million worth of sewer upgrades over the course of 12 years. Because of inflation and the state of the city’s sewer system, that number is estimated to be closer to $650 million. Without the tax, bond funds and other revenue for the consent decree work would have run out by early 2023.
If the tax would have failed residents would likely have seen a 58% increase in sewer bills. Since 2017, the city has avoided a sewer rate increase, but sewer rate increases in 2015, 2016 and 2017 equaled about a 160% increase, he added.
POLICE PAY, SUPPORT
On April 27, Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker proposed using proceeds from a sales tax plan to boost all salaries by 23.87% and begin adding five officers a year beginning in 2028. The pay boost would bring base pay up to $50,000 and cost about $2.3 million a year. Baker, a veteran of the police force who was promoted to chief in September 2019, told the board that more competitive pay is needed to recruit and retain officers and to adequately pay officers for the risks they take each day.
Other items Baker said could be funded if the tax extension was approved including the addition of software and/or non-sworn personnel to help better review the growing amount of audio and video created with the use of body cameras, $5 million portion to support a combined public safety/communications center with the Fort Smith Fire Department, the purchase of “ShotSpotter” software to help address instances of gunshots in the city and reduce violent crime, and maintenance to the main police headquarters in downtown Fort Smith, a building that is about 25 years old.
“Tonight the citizens of Fort Smith chose to invest in the long-term success of our great city with the renewal and reallocation of these two sales taxes,” Baker said in a statement sent to Talk Business & Politics. “Their commitment to the viability of our Police, Fire and Parks Departments as well as our obligations under the federal consent decree give me a great feeling of pride and hope for our future. I look forward to working with the Board of Directors and Administration in the coming months to use this new source of funding passed specifically for the Police Department to significantly increase wages for our officers and equip them to effectively and safely police our city.”