Sharp County voters will go to the polls Nov. 18 to determine whether the county will implement a 1/4-cent sales tax for capital improvements and have the county millage rate rolled back 1.95 mills.
Last month the Quorum Court adopted a resolution promising not to raise the county millage rate for at least two years if the voters approve the two-year sales tax hike.
The county is asking for the sales tax to replace the millage increase which was implemented by the court in December 2002 to take care of county budget shortfalls and to provide the funding for additional offices to be built. Since the increase was established, the county has been in the process of constructing a new building to do just that.
"The county is in a situation where we need some additional revenue and this will help us," said JP Darrell Kehrli, chairman of the county Tax Committee. "This money will be used strictly to make improvements in the county, and property taxes will be lowered. It's a win-win situation."
A 4,800-square-foot justice complex, located adjacent to the courthouse and the sheriff's office in Ash Flat, is almost completed and will supply offices for the sheriff, chief deputy and investigators. It will also include offices for the deputy prosecuting attorney and the third circuit judge of the 3rd Judicial District. It will include a second courtroom, a jury room, an interview room, a deputies' room and a secure area into which deputies can drive to deliver prisoners, connected to the sheriff's department. The complex, which will connect to the courthouse by a corridor through the current 9-1-1 Central Dispatch office, will include handicap-accessible restrooms. There are none in the existing building. Before the building is completed, it will also include a sidewalk with a covered canopy linking the jury room to the existing courtroom. The building is expected to be completed by Jan. 1.
JP Greg Prenger said that if the tax passes, one of the first things the county hopes to do is to conduct a feasibility study on the existing jail.
"We've got to do something with the jail and we have to get the justice complex equipped," Prenger said.
Sheriff Dale Weaver said a 100-bed jail would take care of the needs of the county for the next 10-15 years. The county has been written up repeatedly by state jail standards inspectors for inadequate space.
Renovations have been made to the building to allow the housing of female prisoners. By not shipping female prisoners to Independence County, as was done in the past, the county has saved money, Weaver said. But jail officials remain unable to separate inmates by offense as required by law.
County attorney Larry Kissee said the 1/4-cent tax is the lowest allowed for capital improvements. Under state law, the county would have been able to ask for 1/4-cent, 1/2-cent or 3/4-cent.
"I think it's the best way to go. For years people have wanted their property taxes lowered and this tax will roll off in two years," Prenger said. "It's going to save the property owner quite a bit of money."
If passed, the tax could be enforced up to 36 months by law, but the justices said they will enforce the tax for no more than 24 months. The tax is expected to generate $357,000 each year, with 100 percent going to the county's general fund for capital improvements. Raising the millage rate from 3.05 mills to 5 mills generates approximately $271,000 per year, Kehrli said.
At their September meeting the county quorum court had decided to ask voters for a 1/8-cent tax on the Nov. 4 ballot, but after reviewing Arkansas statutes and consulting with the Arkansas Association of Counties, county attorney Larry Kissee said a 1/4-cent tax is the minimum that could be implemented for capital improvements. If the court had implemented a sales and use tax, the JPs could have had a broader range in the amount they asked for, ranging from a 1/8-cent tax to a 1-cent tax.
The 1/4-cent tax is less than what the county was originally expected to ask for. When the millage rate was increased, JPs expected to have to ask for a 1/2-cent sales tax but they now say they can make their improvements with the 1/4-cent tax instead.
Kehrli said a sales tax spreads the responsibility more evenly to all residents and non-residents of the county rather than forcing only property owners to help the county.
"People who don't own property in the county will contribute to the tax," Kehrli said. "Some revenue will be generated from residents of other counties as well. Everyone will share in the tax. We think it's the best option for the county."