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story.lead_photo.caption File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK The Bethel Heights Lincoln Street Waste Water Treatment Plant is visible June 13 from the Lawrence Bowen property in Bethel Heights. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality is ordering Bethel Heights to pump and truck off waste seven day a week.

SPRINGDALE -- Bethel Heights residents say they have the signatures needed to force a special election on whether to consolidate their small city into Springdale.

Residents started the drive last summer after years of living with faulty wastewater treatment plants.

Unusual move

Votes to annex entire cities are rare in Arkansas, said John Wilkerson, general council for the Arkansas Municipal League. The last one he recalled was the annexating College City into Walnut Ridge in May 2016. College City in Lawrence County consisted of the campus of Williams Baptist College (now Williams Baptist University), and nearby residential areas. Voters in both towns voted to consolidate their two communities.

Source: Staff report

"This is the only way this is going to be stopped," said Joe Brooks, one of the leaders of the annexation effort.

The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality in the past year has recorded wastewater with extremely high levels of E. coli and coliform pooling on the surface of the ground at the plants. An engineering report sent to the state last month on behalf of the city noted the plants haven't operated in compliance with the state's permit for at least a decade.

To call for a vote on consolidation, proponents had to gather signatures of registered voters equal to 15% of the voters in the last mayoral election in both cities, said Ernest Cate, Springdale city attorney. Brooks said his group got petition signatures from the required 50 Bethel Heights residents and 3,000 Springdale residents.

The group plans to present the petitions after the first of the year, Brooks said. Lawyers are reviewing the signatures, he said.

State law says organizers must present the signatures to the city clerks of both cities, who will review the petitions and certify or reject them, Cate said.

Springdale's City Council would vote on calling for an election if the petitions are certified, Cate said.

The city clerks would file the ordinance with the county clerks in Benton and Washington counties, who then would notify the election commissions, said George Spence, the attorney representing Benton County. The county clerks must send to all residents in the area to be annexed the deadlines to register to vote before the election, according to a guidebook for annexations by the Arkansas Association of Counties.

The election commissions would set a date for the election, write the ballot questions and organize the election, Cate said. The ballot would ask residents in both cities if they are for or against consolidating Bethel Heights into Springdale.

Cate called the relationship of Washington and Benton counties unusual. Springdale is one of a few cities in the state in two counties, so representatives of both counties will certify and organize the election, he said.

According to 2018 estimates provided by the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, 7,504 Springdale residents live in Benton County, with the remaining 73,525 in Washington County.

All of Bethel Heights' 2,752 residents live in Benton County.

Kim Dennison, the election coordinator for Benton County, said the Washington County Election Commission and Jennifer Price, her counterpart in Washington County, will coordinate the special election for the consolidation.

"I only have a little piece of Springdale in Benton County," Dennison said.

"I will provide her with a building, but she will handle the rest of it," Dennison said of election day. "We're pretty used to cooperating on these. She and I talk weekly."

A special election would be scheduled for the second Tuesday of the month, Dennison said. "But not in March because that's the date of the primary," she said.

And the vote won't come free.

Lindsey Bailey, legal counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties, said the city annexing the other pays for the election -- in this case, Springdale.

Price said she couldn't estimate how much an annexation election would cost. Springdale's vote in February 2018 to pass a bond issue cost the city $17,869, she said. That included eight polling sites.

"That would be money well-spent," Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse said of election cost.

Bethel Heights officials didn't return requests for comment.

Sprouse presented Springdale's City Council with a tight budget for 2020, which members approved earlier this month. He said extra property tax and other revenue coming from a Bethel Heights annexation would offset the costs of the election.

"We're not looking at this as a revenue driver," Sprouse said. "The main thing is not to get more revenue, but to provide services to those residents that Bethel Heights can't."

Before an election is granted, Springdale would certify the city can provide Bethel Heights residents with services within three years, according to the annexation guidebook.

Springdale Water Utilities provides water service to addresses in Bethel Heights.

NW News on 12/22/2019

Print Headline: Residents ask for vote to consolidate Bethel Heights into Springdale

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