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Melbourne city council sets sales tax special election

Saturday, February 4, 2012

If Melbourne voters agree at an April 10 Special Election, the city's share of a one cent sales tax will create a fund to repair and repave worn out city streets. Photo by Richard Irby [Order this photo]
The Melbourne City Council has decided to ask its citizens for a sales tax increase, to create funds for two city priorities it cannot afford to deal with.

An April 10 Special Election was set by a unanimous council vote. Under the ordinance, the city is proposing to raise its sales tax by one cent. The city of Melbourne would use .375 percent of the funds raised by the increase for the improvement and maintenance of city streets. Another .375% of the tax would go to Ozarka College for improvements at its Melbourne campus. A final .25% would be used for economic development projects, to help existing businesses and recruit new ones.

This architect's drawing shows a Master Plan for future development at the Ozarka College main campus. College officials are hoping Melbourne citizens will support a proposal to increase the city sales tax by one cent - part of which would go to Ozarka to help fund improvements, including a student center. An April 10 Special Election has been scheduled on the sales tax proposal.
The city of Melbourne currently has a one cent tax in effect. It is estimated the increase would bring in an additional $120,000 a year for both the city and Ozarka.

"We have been dealing with a budget deficit for the past year," Mayor Shannon Womack told The News. "We have cut the budgets of all city departments by 10%, and law enforcement a little more, and finances have stabilized a little bit."

Womak said, however, there are no funds available for major improvements to city streets, most of which are in bad repair and have had little attention over the years.

"If you ask people in town, they will tell you street resurfacing is our number one need, and a tax increase would create some funds to begin getting them back in shape," Womack said.

April 2011 flooding caused additional damage to streets already in need of repair. Two streets had sections washed out and will both cost more than $45,000 to rebuild properly.

"Citizens voted for a one-cent sales tax when I was Mayor back in the 1980's, and we used the money to pave most of the streets in the city," Womack said.

Because the cost of repaving streets has skyrocketed over the years, and there are few federal and state grants available for street maintenance, Womack said a sales tax increase is about the only option available to the city.

According to Womack, he and council members plan to meet with civic groups in the days leading up to the election, to explain the need for the tax increase, and how the money raised will be used.

"The ordinance is going to be iron-clad that the money will go to street improvements. We can't use it anywhere else," Womack said. "I feel like people will support this (sales tax increase). The feedback I've gotten so far is, 'sounds pretty good,' because they want better streets."

In August, Ozarka College officials approached the city council to discuss its need for a sales tax allocation for campus improvements.

"We need to further develop our main campus here in Melbourne," Ozarka President Richard Dawe told The News. "We need to bring the campus more in line with people's expectations of what a modern college campus should be."

The first project being developed is a student center, in the middle of campus.

"Right now, student services are scattered all over campus," Dawe explained. "We want to build a contemporary two story building, which would put all student services in one building. It would also create a place for students to gather, study and obtain a range of services." Financial aid, academic and career counseling and tutoring are some of the services that would be consolidated into the student center.

Before the April election, Dr. Dawe said Ozarka College will hold one or more town hall meetings on campus to discuss a Master Plan that was developed last year, to guide how the Melbourne campus should develop to meet future needs. The presentation will include architect renderings of the student center, and other buildings and landscaping to come.

"We want people to understand that the college must advance to a new level to achieve a higher quality of learning, and improved facilities here at the main campus must be a part of the process," Dawe said.

Ozarka College also intends to promote a recent study which showed that the college has a big economic impact on the local community.

"According to the study, the college adds $6.4 million a year to the local economy," Dawe said, through the jobs it offers, staff and students who patronize local businesses and the businesses who supply goods and services to the college.

Dawe adds a sales tax residents approved to help Ozarka locate a campus in Ash Flat is continuing to help that campus grow. In the next fiscal year, the Ozarka College Board of Trustees will discuss funding for the next phase of the Master Plan for the Ash Flat site.

"I know the last thing people want to do is pay more taxes, but people in this area understand the importance of education, and have always been supportive of us," Dawe said.

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