Ordinance to be on special election ballot in November -- One-cent county-wide sales tax is proposed by quorum court

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Carroll County's Quorum Court bit the bullet Friday to begin drafting an ordinance for a one-cent sales tax to address the county's continuing, and growing, financial bind.

Using monies from designated funds in the county and circuit clerk's and treasurer's offices, along with financial cutbacks in other operations ranging from the county airport to juvenile court, its appears likely the county will get through 2003 without going in the red -- or going to a four-day work week and hitting employees harder on insurance premiums. The near-$100,000 in cutbacks also include a freeze on hiring of two replacements in the sheriff's office.

But, County Judge Ed Robertson explained, the financial strain will continue without added revenue.

Major work needs to be done on the Eastern District Courthouse in Berryville, where an unhealthy ventilation system, as well as the roof, needs to be replaced. In addition, to cut rent payments, some county operations will be housed in the courthouse once the new jail on Hailey Road is operational. That will require significant remodeling of the present jail and sheriff's office.

The decision to bring the question to county voters in November came after exhaustive discussions among the justices of the peace, some of whom are very skeptical that voters will approve the measure.

JP Larry Swofford said that he could support a half-cent sales tax with a sunset clause because he thought that would stand a chance of voter approval. He said he could not support a measure that he did not think had a chance of passage.

A similar sentiment was expressed by JP Larry Fry, who said that folks in the Dry Fork area had long memories, and remember the last county-wide tax issue where the county's municipalities voted against the measure, then turned around to adopt city sales taxes. "Dry Fork is not going to vote for a tax where 40 percent of it goes to the cities," he said.

Fry was referring to state law which requires that cities get a certain percentage of a general purpose county-wide tax, based on population. With a designated sales tax, such as the county's half-cent tax for a new county jail, allocations are not made to cities within the county.

JP Yvonne Herron noted that the county's 15,000 rural residents are not being supported or served as those in the towns are.

Robertson said that the county's mayors would not support the issue if they did not get turnback funds from the tax.

If the one-cent sales tax is approved by voters, Robertson estimated that it would generate about $2.8 million.

Of that, the state takes eight percent off the top, he said. The remaining funds will be dispursed with the county getting about 61.07 percent, or $1,561,024, and the county's incorporated towns spliting 38.9 percent, or $995,000, based on per-capita. The towns benefiting would be Alpena, Beaver, Berryville, Blue Eye, Eureka Springs, Green Forest and Oak Grove.

The quorum court members recommended that the proposed ordinance designate how the revenue would be allocated, with 40 percent to the county general fund, 30 percent to public safety, 10 percent to roads, and 20 percent to capital projects.

A decision on specifying disbursement of funds was deferred pending consultation with an attorney.

A sunset clause for the tax was rejected, with JP Jim Wheeler noting that with the projected county growth and present demand for services, there is no way that expenses are going to decrease.

JP Eva Reeve, along with other quorum court members, emphasized that the county's budget committee has looked at every place that can be cut, and that the only thing left on the table is cutting employees back to a four-day work week, reducing services, and increasing employees' insurance premium contributions.

Of the current $3.8 million county budget, $2.2 million is for salaries, leaving only $1.6 million to do the county's business, Robertson said.

Carroll County is one of four in the state with a half-cent tax, that being the designated tax for a new jail. There are 34 counties with a one-and-one-half-cent sales tax and 19 with a two-cent sales tax.

It was generally agreed that the JPs will have to be forthcoming with constituents about the financial straits the county is in, what would happen if more revenue is not found, and how the new revenue will be used.

Concern about getting "overly specific" in the ballot was expressed, as long-term needs and possible emergencies are difficult to determine.

Maintaining the status quo leaves the county struggling to cover expenses of law enforcement and office work, as well as delaying or preventing cost-saving projects, such as remodeling the courthouse in Berryville to house offices for the prosecutor, circuit judge and public defender, which is presently costing $25,000 per year.

Among the needs cited by Robertson for the near future are:

  • Western District Courthouse ---- $100,000 for soffits and facia repair and replacement; and $80,000 for an elevator, thus complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

  • Eastern District Courthouse ---- $40,000 for air conditioners and replace air plenums in the courtroom and county clerk's office; $8,000 to air condition the 911 facility; and $7,000 for air conditioners in the sheriff's office area.

  • Public defender's office ---- $10,000 for air conditioners and duct work; $25,000 yearly rental costs for building and utilities; $20,000 to section offices for juvenile intake and probation offices.

  • Prosecutor's office ---- $20,000 for yearly rental and utilities.

  • Road Department ---- $200,000 per year for 11 years for replacement of heavy equipment; $75,000 for a rubber-tired roller or $80,000 for a steel-wheeled roller; $80,000 per year for five years for 10-wheel trucks; and $50,000 to asphalt the drive at the County Road Barn. (Road department costs could be significantly reduced utilizing a lease program.)

  • Sheriff's office ---- $250,000 for furniture for the new office; $50,000 per year for five years for two new patrol cars each year.

    In other business, the quorum court unanimously approved an ordinance authorizing the county to levy an additional $5 fine from each county case defendant pleading guilty or no contest, is found guilty, or forfeits a bond on any misdemeanor or traffic violation in the district courts in Eureka Springs and Berryville.

    Funds generated will be used to help defray the cost of incarcerating city and county prisoners, including construction and maintenance of the county jail, and payments for incarcerating county prisoners elsewhere.

    An ordinance was also approved appropriating $6,713, received from the Arkansas Law Enforcement Block Grant for overtime in the sheriff's office, to the sheriff's office budget.

    Earlier in the meeting, Sheriff Chuck Medford presented a $21,700 check for reimbursement for housing state prisoners in the county jail.

    Chuck Lang, executive director of the Arkansas Sheriff's Association, recognized Deputy John Raines for rescuing a drowning man last winter.

    The JPs also gave approval to a resolution recognizing the dissolution of the Beaver Town Fire Protection Association, and recognizing the expansion of the Holiday Island Rural Fire Protection District to incorporate Beaver's previous service area.

    Reports were also heard regarding new jail construction, the county airport commission, 911 operations, the Western Carroll County Ambulance District and the name change of St. John's ---- Berryville.

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