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County panel sets tax, millage elections

by I.C. Murrell | September 8, 2023 at 2:57 a.m.
Jefferson County Election Commissioners Samuel Beavers, left, and Michael Adam review documents related to special elections in the city of Pine Bluff and the Watson Chapel School District on Thursday. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

In a 12-minute meeting, the Jefferson County Election Commission officially called elections for two tax measures already defeated by Pine Bluff citizens in May and an annual school millage question in the Watson Chapel School District.

With secretary Sharon Hardin absent, Chairman Michael Adam and Samuel Beavers voted unanimously to place a five-eighths-cent sales tax for general use through September 2031 and three-eighths-cent permanent sales tax for police and fire departments, following passage of the related ordinances by the City Council on Aug. 30. The millage question in Watson Chapel, Adam explained, is an annual practice under state law for voters to address a 39.8-mill tax rate in the district, a 5.7-mill increase which was approved in an August 2022 special election.

The general election for all three measures is scheduled for Nov. 14. A no-vote will not impact the millage rate, which the WCSD is using in part to fund a new high school.

"It doesn't matter if it passes or not. As long as they're not asking for an increase, a vote makes it automatic to be passed, even if it's a negative vote," Adam said.

Of all the controversy surrounding the renewal of the sales tax elections, the potential cost to the city has been discussed by opponents of the measures. Adam "guesstimated" the combined cost of the election for the city and WCSD measures would range from $50,000 to $55,000, with the city paying the larger share.

"What you have to figure out is the cost per poll site," Adam said. "That's the first thing. And, by the time you figure out programming – because programming is a really big cost ... that's a big part of it. Then, you'd have to have the people program the machines, deliver them, and we have to count the early vote. The clerk handles that, but it's still part of the election cost.

"Then, we have the absentees that have to be counted, and we have people over here to do that. The personnel cost is high, also."

A new state law requiring special elections to be conducted during either the preferential primary (in March during a presidential election year or May in other years) or general election (in November) will go into effect Jan. 1.

During a May 9 election, the general-use sales tax measure in Pine Bluff failed 2,021-1,904, and the tax benefiting police and fire departments failed 1,964-1,944. Mayor Shirley Washington has said supporters wanted to see the measures return to the ballot despite their narrow defeats.

Had the second sales tax election not been called, Adam said, the WCSD millage election would probably have been conducted via early and absentee votes only, possibly making the cost no more than $4,000.

"With Pine Bluff running, that's going to make them pay more because they have to pay for those poll sites that are open that are not in conjunction with the sales tax," Adam said.

Adam said he petitioned state legislators to consider a change in state law that would do away with the annual millage election.

"Absolutely, I have," he said. "At first, we had some changes, and it forced the school's to go into spring or fall to run in conjunction, but they could still run specials, and they didn't get the law quite right."

The Pine Bluff School District has been billed $52,547.28 for its Aug. 8 special election over a unified millage toward construction of a new high school of its own. About one-fourth of the cost ($13,079.44) is for election systems and software election programming and support, and $10,940 is for professional services including election layout, machine preparation and delivery.

The measure passed 1,740-1,064.

PBSD Superintendent Jennifer Barbaree said in the lead up to that election passing the millage increase would go a long way toward potential return of full local control over the district by the Arkansas Board of Education, which will likely make the decision during a meeting at the Convention Center next Friday.

"If they'd have run it in conjunction with other elections, it would have been a nominal cost," Adam said.

WCSD voters in precincts 51, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 66 and 67 will head to Faith Community Church, 3703 Ryburn Road to cast their ballots Nov. 14, reducing two usual polling locations for the upcoming election only.

"That's why we're trying to get rid of a few poll sites and cut down the cost, because people don't realize their tax money is being spent on these things," Beavers said.

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