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Jonesboro voters will decide Tuesday in a special election whether to approve a temporary 1 percentage- point sales tax increase.

If the tax were approved, then half of the revenue would go to the city's police and fire departments for capital improvement projects, equipment and other needs. The other half would go toward public amenities, including the library, the arts and parks.

The temporary tax would expire in 12 years and is expected to raise $18 million annually.

The city's current sales tax is 8.5%.

Craighead County Election Coordinator Jennifer Clack said in an email that 4,861 early votes had been cast through Friday. Early voting runs through Monday.

A group supporting passage of the temporary tax has campaigned over the past couple of months to get the measure approved.

"We lack the revenue to go beyond our needs," said Scott McDaniel, chairman of Team Jonesboro. "We lack the revenue to address our growth. We are 80 square miles, the second-largest [city] in the state. We only have seven fire stations. That is the same amount as Conway, which is 40 square miles."

McDaniel said the group started doing research and learned that the city isn't funded like other cities.

"A bird with one wing can't fly," he said.

The idea formed after a group of people noticed that youths were leaving the city. McDaniel said quality-of-life amenities are needed to stop the "brain drain" of young people relocating to other cities.

"We currently rank seventh in the nation on brain drain," he said. "Our kids are leaving. This statistic is a canary in a coal mine. We are at a crossroads, and we have to make a decision."

The group wants to use the sales tax to create such things as an aquatics center, a volleyball complex, a trail system and an arts center.

"El Dorado has an arts district, Batesville has the water park and volleyball complex, and we only have one public swimming complex," McDaniel said. "The one building in Batesville has changed their entire outlook. We have one of the most dominant youth volleyball places in the state -- that is true at every high school level -- but we lack the facilities to host a large event."

McDaniel said the public safety aspect of the tax increase is important, as well.

"We have our police force in three different buildings," he said. "They have to drive all around town to complete and document an arrest. This level of inefficiency department-wide in the midst of our violent crime hitting an all-time high. We need to grow the police force."

Another group, called Citizens Taxed Enough, formed last month in opposition to the tax increase proposal.

Iris Stevens, coordinator for the Northeast Arkansas Tea Party, said the Citizens Taxed Enough organization was created to raise funds to counter Team Jonesboro.

"Arkansas has some of the highest taxes in the country already," Stevens said. "Another increase will have a negative impact on people with middle income. We had a lot of people contact us wanting to know if we were going to fight this."

She said the quality-of-life amenities that Team Jonesboro is asking for don't need a tax to get done.

"Instead of tax measures, we could use private development," Stevens said. "For example, we could get contractors to look into building water parks. You just can't slap a tax on somebody."

The group believes taxes should be used for necessities, not amenities.

"We have streets and roads that need a lot of work," Stevens said. "Amenities are nice, but not necessary."

Officials for Citizens Taxed Enough said they support police and fire but disagreed with the way the tax increase proposal has been created.

"We are strongly in favor of supporting police and fire, but we don't like that it's coupled together," Stevens said. "It was deceptive to put them together."

Stevens said the tax increase request could have been avoided if the city hadn't let a half-cent tax dedicated to the police and fire departments lapse 4½ years ago.

"The departments have had a problem with funding ever since," Stevens said. "We need to reorganize the way things are done instead of putting it on the backs of Granny Smith."

State Desk on 09/08/2019

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