CONWAY -- Even as every mayor in Faulkner County opposes a tax split proposal that would give the sheriff's office a larger piece of the county road sales tax fund, the sheriff says he's hopeful voters will recognize the dire need of the law enforcement agency.
"We are extremely frugal and conservative in our spending due to our limited budget. It is good to be frugal, but it can be very dangerous in our line of work," said Faulkner County Sheriff Tim Ryals. "Voting for reallocation will help us keep our growing community safe and protect our citizens through this season without raising taxes."
The issue was placed on the Nov. 3 ballot after the Faulkner County Quorum Court approved a proposed ordinance at its Aug. 18 meeting to ask voters to split the 20-year-old 1% sales tax with 60% going to the sheriff's office, 35% to the county road fund and 2.5% each to the 911 system and the animal control department.
The tax is now split 50/50 between the sheriff's office and the county road funds.
All nine mayors in the central Arkansas county have come out against the proposed tax cut, with some city councils passing resolutions against the measure.
The Faulkner County Farm Bureau unanimously passed a resolution opposing the reallocation.
Jim Baker, the county judge of Faulkner County, minced no words when asked his stance on the issue.
"It's been in place for 20 years. It's a pretty good success story with the 50/50 split," Baker said. "There's no reason to even think about wanting to change it. I want to call this tax sacred. If it ain't broke, why fix it?"
Last month, local farmers, community business leaders and the county's mayors joined forces by creating an organization, Keep Faulkner County Moving Forward, to defeat the tax split proposal.
"Faulkner County has grown tremendously over the last decade," said Robert McLarty, campaign consultant for the organization. "This tax revenue supports our roadways, streets and drainage, the infrastructure that goes into supporting that growth. Why are we messing with this tax?"
Faulkner County Treasurer Scott Sanson said the tax is projected to generate about $9.8 million for the county in 2020. Last year, $9.4 million was received from the tax, he said.
"So far, we're up by 7.97% this year," Sanson said. "It's a fantastic year. It's the best growing revenue stream in the county."
The push to redistribute the tax was first made by Faulkner County Justice of the Peace Steve Goode.
"We've gone through this for several years, realizing that we have a need in the sheriff's department for additional funding," Goode said. "We've never found a way to fix that need."
Goode attempted to bring the issue before voters in 2016, but the proposed resolution failed to get the votes needed from the Quorum Court.
"This is not about a tax increase; it's about spending the money you've got before you go to the voters for more," Goode said.
Unless the taxes are reallocated to give a larger percentage to the sheriff's office and allocate a continuing funding stream for the animal shelter and 911 system, needed upgrades will not happen, Goode said.
"We have the funding to build the animal control facility today, but we don't have the funding to operate it. Either this passes or we don't get an animal shelter," Goode said. "In two years, the county will need about $1 million to upgrade the 911 system. We don't have the funding."
Ryals said he is a firm believer that all tax revenue that comes into the county be used wisely prior to any attempt to seek a tax increase from voters. Many of the Quorum Court members are committed to finding alternative funding sources, he added.
"They have determined that redirecting the percentages would allow for immediate relief in our public safety. The citizens of this county voted on the sales and use tax, so the citizens have to vote on the reallocation of its split," Ryals said. "It is the court's request to reduce the Road Department's percentage from 50% to 35% and to add 10% to the sheriff's office. The remaining 5% would be split between 911 and the animal shelter. This is what you will see at the bottom of your ballot when voting."
Ryals said he believes in having "good roads and infrastructure for the growth" of the county, but that growth has stretched the county's public safety needs past its limits.
"We are seeing countless subdivisions and population growth outside the city limits in every area of the county. However, we have remarkable roads thanks to the efforts of our county judge and the road department," Ryals said. "Not only do the citizens appreciate this, so do my deputies and other first responders. We have never been unable to get to a crisis in a timely manner due to roads."
The problem lies in too few deputies to cover nearly 650 square miles and a population of more than 126,000 people, Ryals said.
There are 30 sheriff's deputies patrolling the county. Those deputies are split across three shifts.
"For comparison's sake, the city of Conway has 127 sworn officers covering a 45.6-square-mile area. This comparison is not to disparage the Conway Police Department but to show you the vast difference in manpower, which equates to safety for our community," Ryals said. "At any given time – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year – there are three or four deputies covering the entire county, with an overlap in shifts during peak hours. Keep in mind that our authority covers the entire county to include the municipalities."
Extra funding is also needed to update aging equipment -- some of which is held together with duct tape -- and to improve technology for the sheriff's office, Ryals said.
The reallocation of the tax would also support the hiring of six new patrol positions, which is funded through a U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services grant.
The grant funding would provide 75%, or $741,267, of the amount needed to hire the six new deputies over a three-year period. The county will cover the remaining $247,089.
The extra money from the county tax would help maintain those six new positions after the grant funding ends in three years.
"These six additional patrol deputies will also help allow for earned time off such as vacation, sick, and holidays. Past experience shows that deputies are coming to work even when sick because they will not leave a shift short, putting their fellow officers in jeopardy," Ryals said. "Holidays and vacation are being lost due to not having the manpower to take off on these earned leave days."
The tax revenue would also allow for the hiring of six to 10 additional detention officers to staff the new maximum-security jail unit.
McLarty said the municipalities and business leaders in the county are concerned that the redistribution of the tax funds would affect economic development opportunities and take funding away from roads, streets, bridges and other infrastructure projects.
The current 50/50 tax split has helped provide needed infrastructure that has resulted in "thousands of new jobs, including 130 jobs at Structurlam [Mass Timber Corp.] and 1,200 jobs" at DXC Technology, McLarty said.
He pointed to numerous projects funded through the sales tax revenue, such as the College Avenue and Salem Road roundabout, the Arkansas 25 relocation, a new road off Round Mountain Road and the Arkansas 60 overlay from Four Winds Drive to Toadsuck.
The Arkansas 25 highway relocation improved access to Interstate 40 for more than 40 roads in the county and resulted in "unprecedented growth from I-40 to north of Wooster, McLarty said.
"Millions of dollars of funds will be removed from critical infrastructure" if the tax change is approved, he said, adding that the changes funded by the tax have resulted in less traffic congestion and quicker commute times.
Baker, the county judge, said the current tax split has allowed the county to partner with the state and federal agencies to construct new roads and overpasses, such as the new Mayflower overpass.
"They asked for $1.5 million in matching funds for that project," Baker said. "We provided it and I want to continue to be in that kind of position. We have to be able to say yes or that project does not happen."