SPRINGDALE — Early voting begins Tuesday on an annexation question whose outcome will determine if Bethel Heights remains on the map.
Springdale currently surrounds the Benton County town on three sides. The vote will determine if the larger city of about 69,000 people will swallow the smaller one of roughly 2,700.
Early voting begins in both towns Tuesday. Election day is Aug. 11. For the annexation to happen, a majority of votes cast in both cities must support it.
The annexation was proposed as a way to resolve problems with Bethel Heights’ failing sewer system. If the annexation occurs, Bethel Heights sewer customers will eventually receive service from Springdale Water Utilities, which currently provides water to the town.
Property tax rates are higher in Springdale, but Springdale officials promise that residents in neither city will see additional utility costs or rate increases if the annexation goes through. In fact, current residents of Bethel Heights might see their utility rates go down, they say.
The Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality has had Bethel Heights’ two wastewater treatment plants and the former operator under investigation for more than a year after it confirmed a resident’s complaint that wastewater was pooling on his land.
Just last month, Benton County Circuit Judge John Scott ordered Bethel Heights officials to get the system in compliance or face high fines.
Residents on both sides of the annexation issue have formed campaign groups.
One supporter of annexation, Rhonda Neal of Bethel Heights, thinks becoming part of Springdale would be a smooth transition. She said she basically already lives in Springdale. Her home of 25 years has a Springdale address.
But, Susie Wright, a leader in the “Our Town, Bethel Heights” campaign, is against it.
“I don’t have anything against Springdale. I grew up in Springdale. But I’m very happy living in Bethel Heights and so are many other residents,” she said.
The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission has offered Bethel Heights a low-interest loan package of $11.6 million to build a pump station and 14-mile pipeline to connect the city’s wastewater system to the Northwest Arkansas Conservation Authority’s treatment facility in south Bentonville.
The town would have to raise its sewer rates by 66% under the conditions of the loan, according to the commission. Customers monthly would pay a $66.40 flat rate plus $7.74 for every 1,000 gallons used, according to terms set by the commission.
Bethel Heights customers currently pay a $40 flat rate and $4.66 per 1,000 gallons, the commission reported.
Last August, the Division of Environmental Quality told Bethel Heights that it had to start hauling 25% of its daily 80,000 gallons of wastewater to a different treatment facility until wastewater stopped surfacing on the ground nearby.
During the week of July 13-19, the town trucked 612,000 gallons of wastewater at a cost of $54,834, according to invoices the town supplied to the state.
Meanwhile, Springdale Water and Sewer Commission chairman Chris Weiser said his city’s utility estimates that a wastewater-line connection to Bethel Heights would cost less than $500,000 and take about six months.
Already, “we back them up anytime they ask,” said Springdale Police Chief Mike Peters, noting that the smaller town often has only one officer on duty.
Springdale Fire Chief Mike Irwin said the city’s firefighters already could arrive at a call in seven or eight minutes in Bethel Heights, which is the response time for many locations in Springdale.
That means Bethel Heights residents could see lower home insurance rates because the Fire Department has a Class One rating from the Insurance Services Office, Irwin said.
As for taxes, merger of the two cities would have no effect on the property taxes Bethel Heights residents pay for schools nor to Benton County. Bethel Heights residents would continue to pay the millage assessment for whatever school district they live in.
However, property taxes levied by Springdale would increase the rate for Bethel Heights’ taxpayers by 2.3 mills — the difference between Springdale’s 5.7-mill rate and Bethel Heights’ 3.4-mill rate.
The increase for a Bethel Heights resident with a home valued at $200,000 would be $92 a year.
And Jeff Cooperstein, a research associate at the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, thinks Bethel Heights is ripe for multifamily housing development because of his location within the region.
Retail development follows residential development, he said, and he sees a lot of empty land in Bethel Heights. The lingering problem is its wastewater woes.
For some of the town’s residents, the prospect of bigger-city life is not appealing at all.
Last week, Gary Phillips sat under a lush shade tree in his home’s backyard in Bethel Heights. He’s lived in the town 24 years.
“We’ve worked our whole lives for this house,” he said. “And I don’t think I want to be part of Springdale, to be honest.”
Some parents worry that their children will have to change school districts. Even though, Jared Cleveland, superintendent of Springdale Public Schools, assures that his district will not seek to annex the Bethel Heights students.
“The boundary lines were drawn back in the 1940s by the state, and the state is the only one that can change those boundaries,” he said.
For all the reasons why annexation would be a good idea, Wright said, Bethel Heights is home. Its residents know their neighbors and know the police officers by name, and crime is low, but mostly it’s home.