About 40 residents showed up Thursday night for the first focus group meeting concerning how Searcy will move forward after voters said no to making permanent the eight-year, one-cent sales tax, including several who had voiced their opposition to the Feb. 9 special election ballot measure.
“Basically, we are looking at what do you as the citizens of this community think we need to cut,” Mayor Kyle Osborne told the focus group at the meeting held a few minutes after the Searcy City Council’s agenda meeting at the Carmichael Community Center. “We lost 6 1/2-million dollars out of our budget, out of the 16-million-dollar budget. We have to come up with some ideas of what we can do without.”
Osborne asked those attending to break into small circle groups and passed out a Searcy Focus Group questionnaire: “How can the city better serve you as a citizen? Are there additional services you would like the city to provide? What activities would you like the city to facilitate?”
Focus group members were also asked to start ranking the projects they would like to see added to or improved. These items included an outdoor pool, a splash pad, park improvements, a community center, basketball courts, baseball fields, tennis courts, bike/walking trails, soccer fields, police, fire, sanitation, leaf and limb pickup, streets, drainage and any other items or areas they wanted to write in on the questionnaire.
The focus group will be meeting after each monthly Searcy City Council agenda meeting. The next one will be April 8, again at the Carmichael Community Center.
Osborne said at this point he would like for the focus group to meet at least once a month. He said there is the possibility that it might have to meet more often. Osborne said anyone from any ward may participate in the focus group. He said it may be 40 or 400 residents and if it grew that big, “we would find a place to put them” for the meetings.
Focus group members asked questions to Osborne about the use of the city’s money, including one about how the money from the eight-year plan’s reserve and opportunity fund was used.
“The downtown beautification is paid out of that,” Osborne said. “We apply for a lot of grants and the match part whether it be a 10, 20 or 50 percent match, we pay for it out of that; the Holiday of Lights, we pay for out of that; the Child Safety Center, the animal shelter is also paid out of that.”
Retired Harding University Professor Cheri Yecke asked the mayor, “If you are tasking us with what needs to be cut because the 1-percent tax did not pass, what we need to know is what was the 1-percent tax being used for?”
She also wanted focus group members to get an accounting of all the revenue that the city takes in, and said a member in her circle group “had a very good point and said the jail tax was used for building the jail, couldn’t it be now changed to a sales tax? Wasn’t it designated for the jail and if the jail was already built, why do we still need it?”
Osborne said that half-cent sales tax is a county tax and he believes it is for the operation of the jail. Councilman Dale Brewer said it passed as a law enforcement tax, which is connected into county vehicles and everything else to do with county law enforcement. “And instead of the city having to pay for each prisoner, it goes for reimbursement of the jail for that,” Osborne said.
Yecke also wanted to know about the Searcy Municipal Airport’s budget and what exactly the city’s recurring costs are.
Osborne said the questions asked were all good ones and he would try to get the information to those who asked them by Friday and have the information for the full focus group at its next meeting. Osborne told the group members they could call him or email any of the council members with any other questions that might come up.
“My concern right now is how much we are going to have to cut,” Osborne said. “If we don’t get the 1-percent we need, we’re going to have to make some huge, huge cuts .. and we have been asked to look at a community center, we have been asked to look at a pool, we have been asked to upgrade our parks. We have been asked to do a lot and then to lose our one-cent sales tax, we can’t do any of those. In fact, we are concerned about what we are going to lose.
“I’m not trying to scare you, the facts are the facts, it’s simple math, that is why we are asking the community to help us make these decisions.”
Searcy resident Marka Bennett asked Osborne and the council members what they were concerned about that they could lose.
“We are trying to figure out what we could possibly cut,” Osborne said. “I mean nothing is off the table. We could lose a little bit of everything.”
Mat Faulkner, president and chief idea officer of Think Idea Studio, said perhaps on the city’s web page there could be a page where the questions that were asked at the focus group meetings and the answers that go along with them could be listed for documentation.
Searcy resident Max Howell suggested to Osborne that a small commission of eight to 10 residents be put together from those of all walks of life that could be given access to every agency within the city. The commission could have visits with each department to see what they are doing financially in order to help the mayor and the council spend the city’s money “efficiently.”
Osborne said he would look into that.
Resident Jana Miller said she liked the idea of the focus group and the questions that the mayor is seeking answers to concerning what residents want. She asked for a survey on the city’s website so community members could answer these questions as well. She said she feels if residents feel they have more of a voice concerning the decisions, the one-cent tax might pass easier.
“I believe we can do that,” Osborne answered.
Councilman Don Raney told the focus group members that he really appreciates their interest.
“The answer all your questions about what we are concerned about being able to fund or not fund is in what we call Fund 14 accounting,” Raney said. “It shows how much money from the one-cent came in and where it went out. And, if someone is asking what we are going to have to cut out, and it’s equipment and it’s LOPFI [retirement fund payments for police and fire], we really can’t cut that out. That is going to have to come out of the general budget.
“That is where we are going to have to look at cutting some of the expenses and that is a good road map we are going to use to have to make some of those tough decisions.”