The Searcy City Council discussed Thursday whether the city should continue to try to seek to make its temporary 1-cent sales and use tax permanent or to try to pass another temporary tax after voters rejected a permanent measure in a special election Feb. 9.
“I would say that nearly all the people who talked to me before and after the vote who were not in favor of it … because it was permanent [and] because it didn’t spell out specifically the projects that we were going to address,” Councilman Dale Brewer said at the special called meeting. “I’m sure there were a lot of people who voted for it anyway but the ones who were against it, those were the two main reasons they were against it.
“Maybe we can go back and address this is a little different way.”
Councilman Chris Howell said he believes the city still needs to seek to make the tax permanent.
“I think the right way forward is the right way forward today as it was two weeks ago, and that is continuing to make this permanent,” Howell said. “Making it permanent I think is the right way forward. I don’t think things have changed.
“I didn’t get on this council to tread water. I want to see us progress and if we sunset the tax, I think we are just treading water for the next eight years unless we decide to put something else on the table for the voters to vote on. I really believe that that is the path forward.”
Councilman Rodger Cargile agreed.
“I think any big projects that we are going to take on are going to require longer-term financing and sunsetting a tax will not allow us to take on long-term financing,” Cargile said. “I think also another way to say that is, a sunset kicks the can down the road a little ways and I can’t see that as being a viable option.”
Brewer said it doesn’t matter if the tax is permanent “if the people don’t vote it in” because “we don’t have a chance to get it.”
“We might even look at a blend, maybe a 1 percent [where] maybe a quarter is permanent and the rest of it is a sunset of eight, 10, 12 or more years,” he said. “You’ve got to remember this is not our money. This money is from the people and they have a right to say what they want to do with it, and they have expressed themselves very well, so whatever we think needs to happen may not happen if the people don’t approve it, so we need to look at it in that logic.”
Cargile countered that the voters who made known that they were against the tax were only 1,100 “out of 13-some odd registered voters in a city of 25,000.” (The actual vote count was 1,052 against and 881 for making the tax permanent.)
He said while he doesn’t disagree with what Brewer was saying, “I think it is something we have got to take a hard look at it. I just don’t see that a sunset is going to benefit the city. I think we have got to, in order for us to be progressive and do the things we want to do, I just don’t see how a portion of this money can sunset it.”
City Clerk-Treasurer Jerry Morris supported what Cargile was bringing up the Law Enforcement Police and Fire Retirement.
“Strictly numberwise right off the top, this eight-year, 1-percent tax that is currently in place is going to be the LOPFI that takes upwards of $800,000 currently here. If you want to you can round that up to a million because it is going to increase as it goes,” Morris said. “We are not going to be out from under this LOPFI obligation for a long time.”
Searcy City Attorney Buck Gibson asked Morris, “Do we even have an end date when the LOPFI plan funding is due to expire?” Morris said the little bit of information that he has on it over his time working for the city, he was told once that it was thought the year would be in 2029.
Gibson said the goal post date had been moved numerous times since he has been involved. He explained that it was the city’s continuing obligation to fund police and fire retirement benefits under the old program before the current LOPFI program. “Because of reasons that have never been explained to me, we can’t be told what our full obligation is under that plan as I understand it.”
“They’re not going to tell us how much we owe and they are not going to tell us how long we are going to owe it. We just owe it by statute until they tell us we don’t owe it anymore,” he said.
Councilman Don Raney said he never understood “how we got in this hole and why we can’t understand exactly what it takes to get out of it.” Gibson said it is not just Searcy that has to deal with LOPFI, “it’s every solvent municipality in the state of Arkansas.”
Turning to the outcome of the vote, Raney said, “I am devastated over this vote in a lot of ways. I am trying not to take it personal but I don’t know if you all investigated any other cities. I know of no cities that had a temporary tax to do the general business of the city. I am only aware of Searcy being in this situation of a temporary tax.
“I am devastated that less that 2,000 people voted. That’s our failure. That’s Don Raney’s failure. Again, I am not trying to take this personally, but I have always had this feeling that the citizens of Searcy don’t trust us, that they want to control what their is money is spent for.”
While he agreed with Brewer that “it is their money,” he said “we are elected to represent those people and to try and put these programs forward. I have no problems with big-ticket things like swimming pools and things like that. We are going to live off a half-cent for a while and I am not for sure what types of services we are going to have to cut or can even provide.”
“With that eight-year plan, we are just now getting the fire department and the police department and the sanitation department half way to three-quarters back to having everything they need to protect us and serve us and I am really concerned about this,” Raney said. “We’ve got to regroup. there’s no doubt about that. I am worried that we as a City Council aren’t going to be able to come together with the citizens to come up with an acceptable plan. We have too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Councilwoman Tonia Hale said she feels like the council should back up, regroup and put something together and take it to the people. Hale said she and the other council members need to get out there and educate voters.
Councilman Mike Chalenburg agreed with Brewer and Raney, saying “that the purpose of the City Council is to do the right thing with resources.”
Chalenburg said for the election there should have been numbers, “a sheet on the wall kind of thing where we can say LOPFI is going to cost us this much per year and we know that’s for a long time.” He said when he talked to LOPFI representatives, it was more like 2030 or 2031 being the extent of it.
“We know that at this point without the 1 percent there will be no more staffing increases and without it there will be staffing cuts … there has to be because if you don’t have trash trucks, you don’t have people and there’s no sense in having people to drive them,” Chalenberg said. “Obviously, we can do it. I think if we are up front with the numbers, because that’s the biggest thing I heard. You got this list of things, people didn’t really read that.
“The other thing is publication. My wife said that if she had not heard what I had said, she would have seen the signs [Vote for Both] and that is exactly all she would have known. If you see a sign, great but that’s not going to tell people yes. go spend money. The information has got to get out of there somehow, and the city’s website can be used some ways for that, but other than that I don’t know if there’s an effective way to get it out there that it’s not going to fall into social media and get lambasted like it did this last time.”
He said council members and city leaders in favor of the tax “need to get the word out.”
Brewer said he knows the city cannot provide the services it does now without additional revenue and he said he thinks residents understand that too.
“We do represent these people, therefore we better listen to them,” he said. “The idea that we want something has nothing to do with anything. We represent these people, we should represent their feelings and points of view. We just need to figure out someway to have a proposal that is acceptable to the people, present it in the right way so we will have additional revenue to operate.
“We don’t want to forget that the people out there have opinions and we need to respect them so we need to figure out someway to come up with a compromise with the general public, educate them more on what needs to be done, whatever we need to do to have a successful election. I’m talking about myself, too.”
Mayor Kyle Osborne said, “I take the blame” on the ballot measure failing.
Osborne brought up the idea of getting volunteers for “a citizen’s committee” and said he could meet with the committee or he and the City Council could and once or twice a month he could bring up what the committee is proposing.
Councilman Logan Cothern mentioned the idea of having town-hall meeting four times a year so residents could express themselves.
“We have two of those every month,” Gibson said, referring to the City Council agenda meeting andr regular meeting.
Cothern said he knows some don’t like a permanent tax but it’s difficult to plan without one.
“You can’t plan five years down the road if you don’t know how much money you can anticipate that you are going to have,” he said. “I really would like to see us figure out a plan and I think we can have a permanent one-cent sales tax and I think it’s important that we do that.”
Raney said he doesn’t have a problem with having focus groups. Osborne said the focus group could elect a spokesperson who could come to the council meetings and give a report. “That will get the ball rolling,” Osborne said.
Councilman David Morris said he feels that those meetings along with charts and bar graphs would show what the existing city revenues are “and take away the one-cent sales tax that we are going to lose and show what our revenues are to our expenses then.”
“Let people realize by maybe putting it on a personal basis like I alluded to if my wife lost her job. We can’t simply sustain our operation on that half-cent sales tax,” Morris said. “Unfortunately, we are not going to get the new equipment for police or fire or sanitation, the basic services much less the extras we want for our community. I agree with you and I will work 100 hundred percent with you.”
However, Morris brought up the town-hall meetings that were held shortly before the special election but didn’t draw a lot of participation and mentioned that he “was sorely disappointed that the vote turnout was low.”
“People didn’t come,” he said. “I myself like others have heard people say it needed a sunset clause.”
Chalenburg said if the city switches its request to a tax that sunsets, “one of the things we give up if we don’t go permanent is major long-term funding.”
“If it’s a sunset thing, all we can do is borrow short term,” he said. “We won’t be able to do a bond issue for something and spread those payments out if that is what the people of the council wants to do. That’s one of the big arguments against a sunset.”
Osborne said he would seek volunteers for the focus group and see where that will take them. On Friday, the city posted on Facebook that the mayor was creating a citizen-based focus group “that will discuss the needs of the city.” Those interested should call the mayor’s assistant, Lillie Cook, at (501) 268-2483.