Early voting begins Tuesday in two May 12 special elections in Fort Smith and Crawford County to renew respective 1 percent sales taxes.
In Fort Smith, voters will be asked to renew for another 10 years a sales tax they first approved in 1985 to provide money for improvements to city streets, bridges and associated drainage.
In addition, voters will be asked if 5 percent of that tax, or about $1 million a year, should be directed to help fund the development of a citywide trail and greenway system.
Across the Arkansas River, Crawford County voters will go to the polls to decide whether to continue a countywide tax that County Judge John Hall said benefits everyone because the county and all of its cities get a share of it based on population.
There has been little opposition to renewing the Fort Smith street tax. It has gained the endorsement of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Athlete Advisory Committee and the university's Student Government Association.
The tax has generated $418 million over the past 29 years, and paid for improvements and upkeep to hundreds of miles of local streets, the development of eight traffic arteries, and the completion of the Mill Creek flood control project, according to a mailer sent out by the Keep Your Penny Rolling committee.
The chamber also endorsed diverting 5 percent of the tax revenue for trails and greenways, saying the proposed trail system would improve the quality of life in the community by promoting a healthy lifestyle and offering low-cost recreational opportunities.
"A connected multi-use trails system will help attract and retain skilled employees and companies while expanding the use of simple, clean transportation," a portion of the chamber's endorsement said.
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders, co-chairman of the Keep Your Penny Rolling committee, said he saw not only the health benefits of the trails but an economic benefit, as well, in encouraging young people to remain in Fort Smith and attracting businesses that employ young people.
He said Mike Malone, president of the Northwest Arkansas Council, told a Fort Smith chamber crowd Friday that the development of the widely used Razorback Regional Greenway trail system in Northwest Arkansas, which fully opened Saturday, has been a huge economic development tool.
Following Northwest Arkansas' example, developing a trail system "is a real opportunity for us to move forward in our community to offer these amenities," Sanders said.
Plans drawn up by the Fort Smith Parks Department's Trails and Greenways Advisory Committee propose circling Fort Smith with a continuous route of free-standing trails and bikeways on city streets, committee members told city directors in January.
The system also would provide trails and bikeways through town, such as one route from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith campus to downtown.
The cost of developing the 34 miles of trails that the committee has recommended is estimated at between $12 million and $15 million, Sanders said.
Jerry Fleming of Fort Smith said he opposes diverting money for the trail system. He said he's not against the trails idea. But it will needlessly take sorely needed money away from keeping up the city's street system, which he said is underfunded even without the diversion.
He started Save Our Streets Fort Smith and put a site on Facebook that he said has 500 followers. The effort has raised about $1,000 in in-kind services such as donations of paper and ink to print information handouts and a billboard, and about $1,500 cash.
Fleming said he learned from the city's engineering department that city streets should be repaved every 25 years. With 450 miles of streets in Fort Smith, the city would have to repave 18 miles of roads a year to keep up with the maintenance.
But, he said, Fort Smith repaves an average of only 11.4 miles per year. He calculated that the city's five-year street plan approved earlier this year would provide enough money to repave only 7.25 miles a year.
"That's why we can't afford to divert the money," he said.
He also said that in 2012, voters approved diverting one-quarter of a 1 percent wastewater-improvements sales tax to use for Fire Department improvements and parks purposes. The tax will remain in effect for 10 years.
Half of that diverted tax money for parks, equaling one-eighth percent, would raise about $2.5 million a year. It was meant to build more ball fields, develop more neighborhood parks, and for trails and greenways. Over 10 years, the parks' share of the tax would bring in $25 million.
Fleming said the ball fields and neighborhood parks would take only a small percentage of the money generated by the tax, leaving what he thinks could total $22 million for trails.
"So we don't need to divert money from the street tax when we already have a tax for that," Fleming said.
Sanders said he believes the 2012 tax will generate only $3.4 million for trails and greenways.
Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said the diverted money would not be a waste. Using it to develop the trails and greenways system would free up tax money for many other needs in the city's parks system.
"When you look at people's expectations, there's no shortage of projects to make improvements to existing parks," Dingman said.
In nearby Crawford County, the Quorum Court voted in January to refer to voters a proposal to renew for eight years a 1 percent countywide sales tax.
Hall called the tax one of the fairest in the county because everyone benefits from it. The approximately $6.4 million it generates each year is spread among several entities.
Hall said some cities rely on the tax money for 50 percent of their annual budgets. Some of the money also goes to such departments as the county's Office of Emergency Management, rural fire departments and senior citizen centers.
"It's important we renew this so we can continue the progress we've made in the last 10 years," Hall said.
Of the $6,373,674 the tax generated last year, the share for the unincorporated county was $2,880,954, according to figures from the county treasurer's office. Of that, $1,152,381 went to the sheriff's office, $1,296,429 went for county roads and $432,143 went into the county's general fund.
The city of Van Buren, having the largest population, got the largest share of the tax among the cities at $2,344,910. Alma was next, getting $557,547.
The two smallest cities in the county, Rudy and Chester, got $6,276 and $16,359, respectively.
State Desk on 05/04/2015
Print Headline: City, county asking voters to renew taxes