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NWA EDITORIAL: A taxing question

Nov. 3 decision will effect taxpayers, UAFS October 13, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

In Fort Smith, the people actively opposed to continuing a local tax that supports the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith have called themselves Citizens Against Unfair Taxes.

Just about every tax is unfair in some way. Taxes exist because someone identified a need, built up enough political support to address the need and used their political influence to create a new source of revenue. Fairness may factor into the effort, but as many times as not, taxes arise from the path of least resistance. That's why on so many occasions in Arkansas' history, the search for funding has led to a sales tax rather than other forms of taxation -- property taxes, income taxes, taxes on businesses, etc. Every time a need arises, there might be 10 different ways to generate the revenue to address that need, and the one adopted is the one that's politically achievable, but not necessarily fair.

So what tax is it that the Citizens Against Unfair Taxes is upset about?

Sebastian County has collected a quarter-cent sales tax since it was approved by voters in 2001 to help fund the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. Prior to that, Sebastian County property owners paid a tax for the university's predecessor, Westark College. Either one could be described as unfair to someone.

That 2001 sales tax is now slated to end Jan. 1, 2022, which naturally raises the question of whether it should be renewed for a 10-year period.

Any guess as to where Citizens Against Unfair Taxes comes down on that question?

Attorney Joey McCutcheon, the man behind the anti-tax effort, says everyone involved supports UAFS, which is part of the statewide UA system of colleges. But it's time for the system to take responsibility.

McCutcheon says the people of Sebastian County are already "taxed to death."

UAFS officials, none will be surprised to learn, say the university still needs the money. Chancellor Terisa Riley says the $6 million a year the sales tax generates makes up about 8 percent of the university's annual budget.

Eight percent is big, but it wouldn't be the end of the institution if it's gone. McCutcheon says it's time to get the tax "off the backs of Sebastian County voters."

Having an institution like UAFS is great for local students, for workforce development and for the local economy. All in all, the school is on the plus side of the community. But it's entirely understandable in these challenging times why taxpayers might want to lighten their load a bit.

McCutcheon has criticized Riley for earlier comments about the potential impact of losing the tax revenue. He said it was "fearmongering" for her to discuss potential budget cuts or the possibility that tuition and fees might rise.

But really, does $6 million a year amount to nothing? It seems entirely reasonable that school officials would outline possible outcomes from the death of the tax. Speaking of unfair, it's not reasonable to campaign for an 8 percent reduction in UAFS funding and to expect the school's leaders to remain quiet on the potential effects that would have.

UAFS is what it is today because local residents created a strong foundation for it many years ago. It certainly has become a more significant educational opportunity as part of the broader UA system, but that may also suggest to some voters that it's not just the local community college anymore. When it comes to the question of the tax, being part of the UA system may strengthen the message McCutcheon's group is trying to sell.

Still, Sebastian County voters have to give serious consideration to the educational value UAFS delivers to the community and whether they are willing to continue lending support to the goal of local higher education.

Their decision will boil down to whether they believe their lives and their community are getting "bang for the buck" for their investment of local dollars every year in a school that's actually been around since 1928.

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What’s the point?

Voters in Sebastian County will have to weight the value they believe they get from the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith when they decide a Nov. 3 tax question.


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