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Sebastian County group speaks out against UAFS sales tax extension

by Thomas Saccente | October 7, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

FORT SMITH -- A group of Sebastian County residents formed a coalition to speak out against a ballot issue in Sebastian County.

Attorney Joey McCutchen announced the Citizens Against Unfair Taxes during a news conference Tuesday. The group opposes the 10-year extension of a 0.25% Sebastian County sales tax on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The revenue from the tax -- which was approved by voters in 2001 and ends Jan. 1, 2022 -- goes to the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. Arkansas Act 1087 of 2013 gave UAFS the authority to request a sales-tax extension, with the Sebastian County Quorum Court calling the special election on May 26.

It states that before the sales tax, between 1965 and 2001, county voters supported UAFS, and its predecessor Westark College, through property taxes.

McCutchen said the Citizens Against Unfair Taxes believes Sebastian County voters need to be educated on the issue, as well as that if they are educated, the sales tax will "go down."

"Also, I want to say that everyone of our group supports UAFS," McCutchen said. "We feel strongly about UAFS, but we've paid our fair share over the last 19 years ... and we'll continue to pay our fair share, but this tax needs to get off of the backs of Sebastian County voters."

The tax, McCutchen said, was sold to voters in 2001 as a temporary tax for the transition of Westark College to a university. Due in large part to its tax dollars and community support, the county now has a university offering four-year degrees in UAFS. The university has awarded more than 6,900 bachelor's degrees over the last 10 years.

However, according to McCutchen, the sales tax, through which UAFS has collected more than $70 million from county taxpayers since 2001, wasn't meant to be permanent.

"... And if the voters extend this tax for another 10 years, it, in effect, becomes a permanent tax, one that never gets off the books," McCutchen said.

McCutchen argued while the extension on the ballot is only for 10 years, the university will be back in eight years asking residents to extend the tax for another decade and the same conversation will take place again.

"That's why it's time for the people to say 'no,' that there's plenty of revenue to support our university, and since we don't have local control, it's a question for the [University of Arkansas] Board of Trustees to answer, how they want to fund our excellent University of Arkansas because, hey, the people are going to be paying taxes to support it one way or another, ..." McCutchen said.

In the original vote, Sebastian County voters were asked to dissolve the Sebastian County Community College District, repeal the 5.2-mill property tax levy for the college and replace the millage with a 0.25% cent sales tax. The tax would remain in effect for 20 years unless residents vote to retain it.

Another point McCutchen argued was Fort Smith and Sebastian County are "taxed to death," with the sales tax being only the tip of the iceberg.

This tax is a part of the 1.25% county sales tax, which is included in Fort Smith's current tax rate, according to the city's finance department. This leads to a total tax of 9.75% when the 6.5% Arkansas and 2% city sales taxes are taken into account.

McCutchen also discussed additional costs facing residents. City officials signed a consent decree in 2015 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and the state. The city agreed to make an estimated $480 million in repair and upgrades to its wastewater system over the course of 12 years to clear up chronic violations of the federal Clean Water Act, and to aid in fulfilling these requirements, it raised its sewer rates by 167% from 2015-17.

In May 2018, Fort Smith and Barling residents approved a millage increase to fund projects in the School District. The increase, which moved the district property tax rate by 5.558 mills from 36.5 to 42.058, will generate about $120 million. It was the first millage increase in Fort Smith since 1987.

City directors on Aug. 18 also approved an ordinance establishing regulations and charges for the sanitary landfill and residential, commercial and industrial sanitation services, as well as related services. This included rate increases for residential and commercial sanitation services over the next two years starting this month.

McCutchen also brought up remarks made by UAFS Chancellor Terisa Riley.

Riley said Sept. 21 her concern is if the university doesn't have the revenue from the sales tax over the next 10 years, some of the maintenance and operations of the campus and some of the capital assets will not be maintained at the level they have, and the university will have to make some "very strategic cuts." An increase of the university's tuition and fees is another potential outcome, with this also being a time when the university is "already grappling with the potential of budget cuts or reductions in our allocations from the state."

McCutchen said he believed it's unfair when Riley is already talking about increasing student tuition, calling it and the talk of cuts in allocations from the state "fearmongering."

Mike Barr, co-chairman of Friends of UAFS, a group launching the All In 4 UAFS campaign to support the tax extension, said he had no comment about Citizens Against Unfair Taxes except he applauds the group for "stepping out and talking about what they feel about our situation here."

"This issue needs to go before the voters, and ultimately, the voters will say whether it's a good investment or not," Barr said. "... I expected that there would be opposition because everybody needs to have their say, and so, we're excited to put the issue before the voters and hopefully, our message of a sound investment will get, ultimately, to the voters."

Riley said the university takes in, on average, about $6 million per year with the sales tax. This constitutes about 8% of the university's annual budget.

Early voting begins Oct. 19.


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