Washington County panel approves increasing property tax, $68 million budget

Posted: November 8, 2017 at 1:10 a.m.

The Washington County Courthouse, Tuesday, February 14, 2017 in downtown Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Justices of the peace narrowly decided Tuesday to increase the county's property taxes to bring in $1.6 million in revenue next year.

"The county is a business -- somehow it has to support itself," said Justice of the Peace Fred Rausch, a Republican representing northwestern Springdale. "You can't spend it if you don't have it. I don't see any other way, except to raise the millage."

Next meeting

The Washington County Quorum Court plans to make a final decision on the county’s budget and property tax rate during the next regular meeting at 6 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Quorum Courtroom at the courthouse in Fayetteville.

Source: Staff report

The new revenue will help offset a $5 million gap between proposed spending and revenue, justices of the peace said.

Justices of the peace voted 6-6 for the millage increase by a show of hands. Justice of the Peace Eva Madison, a Democrat representing northeastern Fayetteville, then cast the tie-breaking vote.

Justice of the Peace Joseph Kieklak, a Democrat representing southern Fayetteville, abstained from voting. Justice of the peace Lisa Ecke, a Republican representing southeastern Springdale, left the Budget Committee meeting early without voting.

The full Quorum Court will vote on whether to increase property taxes to 4.4 mills, up from 3.9 mills, during its meeting Nov. 16. The increase will put the millage rate back to where it was before the Quorum Court reduced it in 2011, said Justice of the Peace Butch Pond, a Republican representing eastern Washington County.

"Do I want to vote for a millage increase -- no," Pond said. "[But] I can't sit here and pretend. We're going to have to do some cuts in some of those increases we made in that budget, but we have got to put the millage back."

Justices of the peace are worried about the long-term financial health of the budget and growing costs for law enforcement and the jail, they said. The committee has approved multiple requests for new positions over the past month but decided Tuesday to cut $100,000 from Ozark Regional Transit, a public transportation system.

That kind of cut isn't enough to fix the budget, Madison said. The committee then approved a roughly $68 million budget about $2 million more than last year's budget.

The Quorum Court must set the millage rate and approve a budget by Dec. 31. To pass the budget at the next Quorum Court meeting requires a super majority vote of 10 justices of the peace, Madison said. If justices of the peace support the proposed budget, then they should also support a millage increase, she said.

"If we need more money, then we need to have the guts to raise the millage," Madison said.

Justices of the peace said they want to look at possible cuts to next year's budget before finalizing it. Justice of the Peace Joe Patterson, a Republican representing northeastern Washington County, asked for a list of items the county funds that isn't required by state law.

Pond said he wouldn't vote for a tax increase at the Quorum Court meeting without some budget reductions. Some items in the budget aren't needed, agreed Justice of the Peace Tom Lundstrum, a Republican representing northwestern Washington County.

"I don't like to raise taxes, and I don't agree a lot of what's in the budget to begin with -- a lot of what I consider welfare stuff," Lundstrum said. "We keep wanting to reach out and help everybody and that costs a lot of money."

NW News on 11/08/2017