Pope County voters will decide in the March 3 election whether to pledge more than $80 million of future net casino revenue on improvements that include a $58.8 million criminal justice facility and a $2.1 million senior citizens center.
If the measure to fund a jail proposal fails, then a tax increase is the only option, said Ben Cross, county judge of Pope County.
"Thankfully, some very progressive members of the Legislature had the forethought to craft legislation to provide immediate benefit to the four counties in Arkansas slated to have a casino through Amendment 100," Cross said. "The passage of Act 703 last year provides those four counties with the mechanism by which to allocate casino tax revenues to capital improvements through a bond issuance, thereby taking the tax burden off of the local taxpayers, and allowing those governing bodies to build such things as jails and libraries at the expense of the casino taxes."
Early voting in the March 3 election -- which, in addition to special ballot issues, includes party primaries and the nonpartisan general election -- begins Feb. 18.
Approved by voters in November 2018, constitutional Amendment 100 allows a new casino in both Pope and Jefferson counties, and it allows the expansion of gambling at racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis.
Pope County residents voted against the measure at the polls. Nonetheless, five companies applied for a license last year but were rejected by the state Racing Commission because none contained endorsements from local officials who were in office at the time. The Pope County Quorum Court later endorsed Cherokee Nation Businesses of Oklahoma for the license there.
But the Pope County casino license remains in limbo as casino operators and anti-casino groups battle it out in court against the Racing Commission.
Act 703 -- sponsored by Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis -- allows local governments in the four counties covered under Amendment 100 to secure debt with their share of the projected casino tax revenue. Issuing bonds is subject to local ballot referendums asking voters for approval.
Under Amendment 100, 19.5% of the net casino gaming receipts would go to the city or town in which the casino sits and 8% would go to the county. If the casino sits solely in the county, then all 27.5% would go to the county.
Russellville Mayor Richard Harris said more information is needed before issuing bonds tied to the casino tax revenue.
"It is difficult to support a bond issue authorizing the borrowing of such a large sum of money and tying up the tax revenue from the casino for many years to come without fully understanding the impact on city and county resources when a casino is built," Harris said.
He referenced recent counsel he received from Arkansas Municipal League attorney John Wilkerson, who told Harris that the city needed to "just wait" because "there are too many balls in the air."
"This city is adhering to this counsel, and I would suggest the citizens do the same," Harris said. "There is no need to hurry, and we can decide this issue at a later date, when we have more information."
The ballot breaks down the proposed improvements into five different bond initiatives:
• Criminal justice improvements -- $58.8 million -- The project would include the land acquisition and construction of a criminal justice center that would double the number of jail beds to 400 and also house a sheriff's office operations facility, a 911 communications center, an Office of Emergency Management site, a coroner's facility and two 5th Judicial Circuit courtrooms.
• Library improvements -- $8.4 million -- Bond proceeds would fund the construction of a Russellville Branch Central Library facility within Russellville city limits.
• Wellness improvements -- $2.1 million -- The project includes the construction of a senior citizens wellness center that would include a gymnasium with an indoor walking track and flooring constructed with senior citizens in mind. The facility would be adjacent to the existing Pope County Senior Center in Russellville.
• Public safety improvements -- $3.57 million -- Bond proceeds would allow the construction of a Russellville Fire Department substation in the northeast quadrant of Russellville, along with the purchase of firefighter equipment, police vehicles for the Russellville Police Department and other items.
• Event center improvements -- $7.35 million -- The project includes the land acquisition and construction of a multi-purpose event center facility on the property of the Pope County Fairgrounds, with the capacity to hold exposition shows year-round.
The projects were all included in an interlocal agreement hashed out between the county and the city.
"The infrastructure put forth by our bond initiative contains both needs and wants as outlined by the Quorum Court's ordinance. My chief concern is the proposed justice complex, consisting of a new 400-bed jail, 911 center, and two circuit courts," Cross said. "This project has to happen, with or without a casino, so Act 703 just provides a solution that puts the tax burden on someone besides our local residents."
Cross said the jail has been crowding since 2009. The facility -- which was originally built in 1981 with an addition in 2000 -- is licensed for 172 inmates, but the daily average jail population is at 200.
After a recent inspection by the state Criminal Detention Review Committee, Pope County Sheriff Shane Jones was asked to organize an improvement plan for jail operations. The plan is due by December.
Jones warned in an open letter to the voters of Pope County that the jail crowding is headed to a crisis level.
"Please know, I also live and pay taxes in our county, and I don't like the idea of having to pay more taxes to build a new detention center any more than you do, but I am telling you it is now imperative, with the growth of our area, that we increase our jail capacity sooner rather than later and because it's a major public safety concern," Jones said. "The Pope County Detention Center is used by every police department and court in the county to house detainees, both pre-trial and convicted."
Like the casino issue itself, the bond initiatives have created division within Pope County. Nearly 70% of the voters rejected Amendment 100 at the polls, but the tide began to turn last June when the grass-roots group Pope County Majority was created.
Members of the group are vocal in their support for the bond initiatives.
"I think it's a great thing to do. Input has been gathered from local residents and government agencies to identify real and present needs along with wants of the public for future amenities for our county," Russellville resident Michael Ford said. "This guarantees and gives the public trust that the net tax revenue from the casino resort will be spent on these needs and will not be wasted or changed by present or future officials."
Pope County Majority administrator Mike Goad said it's imperative that the public understands that the bonds will not be issued unless a casino is licensed and built in Pope County and only after the casino has been in operation for a year.
"While these are county bond issues, Russellville is by far the biggest population that will benefit from each of the bonds. Most of the central library patrons live in Russellville. Most of the people arrested are from Russellville or are in Russellville when they get arrested," Goad said. "Most of the 911 calls, ambulance runs, and coroner responses are in service to Russellville. Most of the seniors that would use the wellness facility at the senior center live in Russellville. The Fire Department substation and the police cars are specific to Russellville. Russellville will get the biggest economic benefit from the event center."
Russellville was left out of an economic development agreement negotiated by Cross and the Cherokees that included a $38.8 million "economic development fee" that would be disbursed among the county, some cities and some nonprofit organizations.
Mark Tripp, a Russellville City Council member, said that as a Pope County resident and registered voter, he is not in favor of the bond initiative even though he recognizes there are "current and future needs" within the community.
"The potential casino gaming yearly revenue is estimated at $4 million. The total cost for the projects is almost $80 million. With this being the case, the bonding of 100% of the proposed projects would result in Pope County making payments for up to the next 20 years," Tripp said. "Ultimately, this commitment would affect a full generation of our community. Is this really what is best as we address the needs of our future? Is committing nearly 100% of this revenue stream on the front end in the best interest of our community as a whole?"
Likewise, Hans Stiritz, a Pope County resident and member of the anti-casino group Citizens for a Better Pope County, said the projects may be worthwhile, but it's "just wrong to rush to tie these improvements to uncertain income built on the backs of casino losers."
"The casino taxes that would be bonded to pay off these bonds should be earmarked for mitigating the direct costs of a casino in our community," Stiritz said. "If Pope County is so desperate to fund these projects, we have to look at other alternatives to going $60 million or more in debt for decades to come."
If the bond proposals fail to gain approval at the polls, Cross said, then the future is clear.
"We would have no other option but to submit a sales tax proposal to the voters on the jail issue, as this is a critical public safety concern," Cross said.
To Stiritz, as well, the future is clear.
"If the casino taxes are bonded, and costs balloon -- or casino revenue falls short -- taxes will have to go up anyway," Stiritz said.
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