City & County

Black leaders make plea for retailers’ eligibility to get jobs tax incentives

By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian

Jacksonville NAACP president Barry Jefferson addresses Clark County justices of the peace during a meeting Monday. | The Arkadelphian/Joel Phelps

A cry for incentivizing minority-owned businesses went unanswered by Clark County’s elected officials Monday.

A trio of black leaders were on the agenda to address justices of the peace regarding a 1/2-cent sales tax collected in Clark County for job creation. They were given 5 minutes apiece to speak before a full quorum of 11 justices and about 25 citizens in attendance. No public discussion was held afterward.

The issue at hand is the apparent shift of opinion of whether a portion of the tax can be spent to incentivize small businesses. Some feel they were misled during a campaign supporting the renewal of the tax, as they were told new guidelines would be written to allow it. However, those guidelines became moot not long after they were approved, as a newly hired Little Rock attorney opined that the Arkansas Constitution doesn’t allow economic development sales tax dollars to be used for retail or small business.

Bruce Bell, president of NAACP’s Clark County branch, read from a prepared statement. He called out an “apparent lack of transparency” by the Economic Development Corp. of Clark County in determining eligibility for incentives. Members of the 15-member EDCCC board are appointed by the county judge and operate separately from the Quorum Court. Bell said the criteria for incentives eligibility creates a need for “increased clarity” in local laws and guidelines. He argued that the annual dollar amount agreed on to support local retailers “is not an excessive demand” given the annual revenue collected for the EDCCC. And, because the black community “showed strong support” in favor of the tax, county leadership should stick to the claims made during the campaign, Bell said.

“This is not subject to our interpretation but rather is a matter of law that must be addressed at the legislative level or statewide ballot initiative.”

— Kevin Jester, chair of EDCCC

Bell questioned the legality of excluding businesses from receiving financial assistance, and also questioned whether the tax should be repealed since it was “marketed and promoted through black churches to solicit support from the black community.”

In response to Bell, EDCCC chairman Kevin Jester later told The Arkadelphian that the 2021 campaign was “lawfully held according to state law and was promoted across the county as a measure to continue our economic development efforts. There is nothing in the administration and use of the tax funds that is discriminatory in any way and the EDCCC welcome any business that meets the requirements set for under state law to apply.”

Jester said the intention of both the EDCCC and the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance “is to work with businesses of all types to facilitate their growth in Clark County.” Jester noted that incentives have been awarded to minority-owned businesses in the past and “in no way are they excluded from receiving future incentives.” As for eligibility requirements, Jester said the guidelines established by the EDCCC mirror those of the state’s Constitution and the Public Corporations Act, and align the county with state law that limits which entities are eligible for job creation incentives.

Further, he said, “in neither the 2021 application, nor the Business & Industry guide was there any reference to any measure to disqualify any eligible business, regardless of size or ethnic or racial ownership, from applying for local job creation incentives.”

Another speaker, Johnny Harris, said the two opposing sides have differing legal opinions on eligibility requirements. He said, too, that the “goal posts keep changing” as local leadership reneged on its guidelines under the advice of the new law firm. Harris hinted that ignoring the plea to address the guidelines and eligibility requirements will create racial division in the community.

Jester also later responded to Harris. In part, he said:  “I understand that Mr. Harris is frustrated but let’s understand that there has been one revision to the guidelines to align with state law. The reasoning behind the need for the revision was discussed openly at our public meetings and was approved unanimously by the EDCCC board. Since that time, there have been numerous meetings with those who had questions and Mr. Harris himself to explain that the County and EDCCC must follow the law and abide by the Arkansas Constitution.”

Jester added: “This is not subject to our interpretation but rather is a matter of law that must be addressed at the legislative level or statewide ballot initiative.”

Barry Jefferson, president of the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP, echoed Harris’s comments, adding that those seeking tax incentives “ain’t asking for a lot, they’re just asking for a little handout.” Jefferson concluded that awarding sales tax incentives to retailers is “important to their communities, important to their businesses … Changing the laws at the last minute is not good.”

Check back later for more coverage of Monday’s Quorum Court meeting.