City officials in Arkadelphia are gearing up for an election to ask voters to renew a sales tax that would sunset in 10 years
By JOEL PHELPS | arkadelphian.com
In 2019 voters were asked to Move Arkadelphia Forward by passing a 1-cent sales and use tax to improve the quality of life. In a special election, 66% of those who cast a vote favored the tax.
Now the tax is up for re-election, and will be decided on in the March 2024 primary. The city board of directors held a roundtable discussion recently to talk selling points to sway voters to maintain their support — and to lengthen the lifespan of the tax to 10 years.
Prior to the tax’s passage, sales tax collections in Arkadelphia averaged $2.06 million in three years (2017-2019), according to the city’s 2022 financial summary; since its passage (2020-2022) the city collected an average of $5.13 million in the same amount of time.
City leaders will be the first to note that the tax lifted the city from the brink of a financial crisis, and are quick to point out the benefits the city has reaped since collections began: the police department has updated its fleet; the fire department has a new engine; frequent festivals attract crowds to downtown; major drainage improvements have been made throughout the city; most city streets have been improved with a slurry seal. The list goes on.
There are more major projects still in the pipeline, including a $1 million regional training center for fire and police that, if constructed, would further lower the city’s ISO rating, meaning lower insurance premiums for homeowners. Also, the city has plans to move its police department headquarters into the old Sav-U-Mor on Main Street to consolidate the city and county’s dispatch stations into one location, housed at the current police department (this particular project, however, falls in line with a state-mandated consolidation of dispatch systems by 2025).
A complete rebuild of certain streets — namely the portion of W.P. Malone Drive between Pine Street and Badger Lane — has been among the few projects still on the to-do list but would remain a priority if the tax is renewed.
One major benefit of the additional revenue that comes with the tax is the ability to leverage state and federal grant money, matching local funds to those grants. For instance, Brinkley noted that portions of Feaster Trail have been improved thanks to matching local funds to outside grants.
Brinkley also wasn’t shy about naming some of the city’s shortcomings related to the tax, particularly the failure to secure grants and donations to erect the $2.5 million MLK Memorial Park. Also, only about 20% of street and traffic signs were repaired or replaced, Brinkley said.
Among the projects Brinkley said will be funded, should the tax get renewed, include building press boxes at the Youth Sports Complex, securing grants to connect Feaster Trail to an existing trail system at Lower Lake, and developing the MLK Park.
City directors talked at length about a strategy to “inform the public” about the benefits of renewing the tax. The city is anticipated to enlist the aid of the El Dorado-based Diamond Agency for marketing its message to voters. Publisher Don Hale, who owns the Diamond Agency, was on hand during Tuesday’s workshop and advised the city board on a few talking points. Hale seemed optimistic that, given the 66% of supporters in the 2019 election, the city doesn’t have a tall climb ahead in convincing the public that the tax should remain.
One favorable aspect of the tax for Arkadelphia residents, as pointed out by Mayor Scott Byrd, is that a tremendous portion of it comes from commerce from nonresidents. For Arkadelphia residents alone to have funded the millions collected so far would equate to each citizen paying $30,000 a year in sales tax revenue.
“We’ve had tremendous dividends off this from outside of our city,” Byrd said.
Though directors agreed on proposing a 10-year sunset, there was a mixed bag of thoughts toward the end of the discussion. Ward 2 Director Chris Porter noted that there is now likely a higher percentage of voters against the tax who would be apt to “muddy the waters.” Ward 3 Director Keith Crews said including the tax in a primary ballot could be a gamble, as some voters will show up to the polls with the intention of voting for a contested race, like the state senator, and vote against the tax simply because they may not have heard about it. Ward 4 Director Reo Cummings, in his 40s, said his generation generally supports the tax because they “want new stuff.” Brinkley predicted a victory of about 55% of voters supporting the tax “if we have a clear message and good people delivering the message and buying in.”