Green Forest council moves closer to increasing city sales tax; approves sewer rate hike and Phillips $212K in improvements

Monday, January 28, 2013

GREEN FOREST -- City council members moved one step closer to increasing the city sales tax at a specially called meeting Friday afternoon. They also increased the city sewer rates by 3 percent and approved $212,059.50 worth of improvements to Phillips Avenue.

The first proposal, which would increase the city sales tax from 1 to 2.25 percent, is now in the hands of voters. Council members voted Friday for an Apr. 9 special election to decide the question.

Four-fifths of the revenue from the increase would be dedicated to the city general fund, and the remainder would be pledged to new police and fire "vehicles and equipment."

The original version of the ordinance considered Friday had read "departments and services." However, the wording was changed after Councilwoman Willa Kerby objected to its broadness.

Kerby noted that city officials had said the 20 percent would be dedicated only to purchasing and outfitting new vehicles, which are sorely needed, and said she worried the more ambiguous phrasing would discourage voters from supporting the tax.

Kerby also raised concerns -- shared by Police Chief John Bailey, sitting in for City Recorder Melea Fry -- that the ordinance mentioned nothing about eliminating the city millage, which Reece had promised to do if the sales tax were passed.

"How can the citizens vote, then, and know that they're getting a trade?" she asked.

Councilman Tim Hatman and other responded that city attorney Brad Brown had advised them against including anything about the millage in the ballot title, citing legal concerns. Reece also reminded Kerby that the millage would have to be considered by council in August, as it is every year, and that any changes would be made then.

In other words: For now, voters will have to trust that city officials will follow through on their promise.

The mayor said the specific language of the ballot title could be amended further at a later date, pending guidance from Brown. The attorney could not answer officials' questions at Friday's meeting -- being absent, his secretary told city staff, because of a court date.

Council members also increased the city sewer rates by 3 percent at Friday's meeting. Reece said officials had intended to bundle that increase with a parallel increase in the city's water rates, approved last week. However, it was accidentally omitted from the earlier ordinance.

The road to contention

Also Friday, council members voted to award the contract for the Philips Avenue beautification project to Kirk's Excavation. Kirk's was the lowest of three bidders, at $212,059.50.

The project, which calls for constructing a landscaped median and re-curbing and paving the street, has been before council for about a year and a half.

The city will pay approximately $127,000 of the cost, with the balance being covered by a grant.

The decision to move ahead with the project, as well as the timing, riled the two lonely citizens who attended Friday's meeting.

Pat Bishop criticized a number of things. First, he noted that the decisions to raise sewer rates and spend $127,000 of the city's money had been made at a meeting which very few people were aware of.

The meeting was announced only a couple hours before the 3:30 start time, just within the two-hour's notice required by law for special meetings.

Bishop also objected to the fact that the ordinances passed Friday -- and, indeed, all those approved last week -- were passed without the three separate, public readings customarily required by state law. Instead, council members voted -- legally -- to suspend the normal rules and perform all three readings of each ordinance in a single day.

Beyond this, each ordinance was also passed using an emergency clause. This was accomplished under a separate provision of state law, which allows for an ordinance to take effect immediately upon publication, without the customary lag period.

Reece countered that council had adhered to the letter of the law and that it was necessary to pass the sales tax measures quickly in order to refer the proposal to voters by April, so the city could, possibly, begin collecting revenue by October.

Beyond issues of procedure, Bishop -- and fellow Green Forest resident Bill Emerson -- took issue with council members' decision to move forward with the Phillips Avenue project.

Emerson was Alderman Tim Hatman's opponent in last November's city council elections.

"There is a difference between a want and a need," he said Friday.

He said city officials' justification of the project -- that it was necessary to discourage speeding on the thoroughfare -- was inadequate.

He said he planned to submit an FOIA request for the number of tickets handed out for speeding on the street during the last two years.

"Just say that we gave ten speeding tickets on Phillips for speeding," he said. "That's $21,000 per ticket."

However, council members were not moved by Emerson's argument.

"We're talking about children's lives," Kerby said, "not tickets. That's what we're talking about -- the safety the children who are walking up and down the sidewalk and the street to go to the school."

In response, Emerson asked how much a few speed bumps would cost. However, council members responded that the project was also meant to beautify the city, which they hoped would, in turn, drive economic growth.

"We have statistics that show when you start making things look prettier, and put color in the city and start caring about how things look, everybody comes up to that standard," Kerby said. "That's what everybody has been saying for the last four or five years, is that we need to make our city look better. That's what we're trying to do here."

"Can you help us?" she asked in frustration. Emerson declined.

Bishop questioned the wisdom of spending so much money on the project at a time when the city was also asking residents to shell out more cash -- although he did not say, or perhaps was unaware, that the money to be used for the Phillips Avenue project can, by law, be used only for road work and related costs.

"At an emergency meeting, we're asking for two increases," he said. "You know, I need a facelift, but I've got to go buy groceries and pay my house payment. If we're asking for more and more income, do we really need to get a facelift, at that price?"

Council members will next meet for an agenda setting meeting at 7 p.m. on Feb. 4. The next regular meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on Feb. 11. Both meetings are open to the public and will be held at City Hall, located just south of the intersection of South Springfield Avenue and Main Street, in Green Forest. For more information, call 870-438-5568.

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