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Monday, June 18, 2018, 6:39 a.m.

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Benton County balks at land conservation tax

Officials concerned it ‘muddies the water’ before courts building vote

By Tom Sissom

This article was published June 14, 2018 at 1:08 a.m.

the-benton-county-courthouse

The Benton County Courthouse.

Conservation study

The 55-page conservation finance feasibility study for Benton County done by The Trust For Public Land can be found on Benton County’s website at bentoncountyar.gov by going to the calendar on the homepage and then to the dashboard for the June 12 meeting of the Committee of the Whole.

Source: Staff report

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BENTONVILLE -- Benton County officials said Tuesday they don't want anyone to "muddy the waters" by asking voters about raising taxes for land conservation before the county's sales tax vote for a new courts building.

The Quorum Court's Committee of the Whole heard a presentation Tuesday night about the Northwest Arkansas Open Space Plan from Elizabeth Bowen with the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, and Will Abberger, director for conservation finance with The Trust For Public Land.

The Regional Planning Commission -- which includes representatives from Benton and Washington counties along with Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, Siloam Springs and Springdale -- has been working with the trust on a plan to "develop a coordinated, voluntary program to protect and promote the region's most valued natural landscapes and open spaces."

The plan includes establishing a voter-approved source of money for land acquisition and preservation.

The trust has been involved in more than 500 successful land conservation ballot measures across the country over 20-plus years, Abberger said. Those successful votes have raised more than $68 billion for land conservation, he said.

The effort underway in Northwest Arkansas is following the same path as others, he said. A feasibility study, which has been done for this area, is followed by polling to gauge voter interest in the issue and levels of support for different types of funding.

Abberger said the three most common types of funding are property taxes, bond issues and sales taxes. He said a poll done in Washington County indicated nearly 59 percent of voters surveyed would support a bond issue, with about 30 percent saying they were opposed and another 11 percent having no opinion.

"I think the timing is not good," said Tom Allen, justice of the peace for Benton County's District 4 and chairman of the Finance Committee. He noted a potential conflict between the special election on paying for a new $30 million courts building and any polling asking voters for their opinion on tax increases for land conservation.

"I do believe it muddies the water. It puts at risk something we've been working on for decades," he said. "I think we need to be focused on this."

Allen said he understands the polling could be broadened to include questions about the courts building. He said the Quorum Court considered and rejected a poll on the courts building, saying it's too late to be asking those questions.

"At this point, we're all in," Allen said of the courts project. "It doesn't matter what the survey results would have been."

Brent Meyers, justice of the peace for District 14, said he's against even asking voters questions about possible tax increases for anything other than the courts building. The county is aiming for a special election on the courts project in March 2019.

"We have a $30 million courthouse, and we're very concerned about going to the voters," Meyers said. "If you go out with a public opinion poll right now, it's going to kill the courthouse. People are going to be saying, 'They're coming at us for everything.'"

Joel Edwards, justice of the peace for District 15, said he thinks voters would support a land conservation plan but agreed it would hurt the courts project.

"I think if you threw this on a ballot in November, it would pass, without question," Edwards said. "But that might be a bad thing because we might not get a county facility in March."

County Judge Barry Moehring said he can't support any tax for land conservation now.

"Given all the other priorities and demands on our resources, this does not rise, to me, to the level of increasing taxes," Moehring said. "I do think this muddies the water. We do have a ballot initiative that we're going to be pursuing in March."

Moehring said he remains interested in the land conservation idea but would want the county to work on any survey questions. He also suggested the 2020 general election might be a better time to consider such a proposal.

The justices of the peace took a straw vote on the question of doing the polling, and nine of the 10 present voted against it.

Abberger said if Benton County is opposed to pursuing the idea this year, the survey should be put on hold.

NW News on 06/14/2018


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