Fort Smith: $90 million sales-tax vote set for water, sewer, city hall

DAVE HUGHES
ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

FORT SMITH -- Fort Smith voters will go to the polls March 20 to vote on whether to approve two half-cent sales taxes that would generate $90 million for expansion of the city's water supply, repairs to its sewer system and a new city hall.

"I think we have a selling job ahead of us," Fort Smith Mayor Ray Baker said at Tuesday's meeting where city directors voted 6-0 for the special election. City Director Ben Shipley was absent.

If approved, one tax would be new and the other would be an extension of the half-cent tax voters approved in 1997 to expand the city's civic center, upgrade the library system and develop the riverfront near downtown. That tax is scheduled to expire in early 2005, Assistant Administrator Ray Gosack said.

Gosack said the two taxes, if approved, would be needed until 2008. Approval of the taxes would raise the total sales tax collected in the city to 8.125 percent, of which 5.125 percent is levied by the state.
The ballot will give residents the option of voting for or against each project. The ordinance passed Tuesday calls for $50 million for the water system expansion, $30 million for sewer system improvements and $12 million for the new city hall.

The $50 million for the water system expansion would pay for less than half of the remaining $140 million on the project. The balance would be generated through water rate increases. Gosack put a table in a Jan. 5 memo that showed residential water customers would pay 31 percent to 42 percent more on their water bills with the sales tax in place but 52 percent to 71 percent more without it.

Plans are to raise the Lake Fort Smith dam to increase the capacity of the reservoir to provide an additional 45 million gallons of water a day. Fort Smith and its water customers now use about 30 million gallons a day. Project costs, in addition to construction, include engineering work, land acquisition and relocation of the Lake Fort Smith State Park.

The $30 million for the sewer system improvements would not require sewer rate increases as well, Gosack said. However, he said the long-term cost is $110 million and the city will have to complete the improvements in phases down the road.

The federal government is mandating the improvements to handle the large amounts of water that inundate the city's two waste-water plants during storms. Rainwater infiltrates the city's sewage collection system and bypasses the treatment plant because the plant can't accommodate the large influx of water.

The $12 million for a new city hall drew the most discussion by directors. City Director Nan Bartlett said she thought the city hall idea should be dropped from the ballot. She said the city had more pressing needs for the money and thought the money earmarked for a city hall could best be used to reduce the expected water rate increases and the tax burden of poorer citizens. When called on to vote, she said, "I really don't want to vote for the city hall issue, but we need the other two."

Other directors pointed out that it would be eight more years before the city would have the taxing authority to devote to a city hall if it wasn't addressed in this election. Gosack said the city only has authority to levy an additional half cent now, according to state law. If a new half-cent tax were passed and dedicated only to the new sewer system, the city couldn't pass another tax for the city until after this one expires in 2008.

Directors said the residents should be allowed to decide for what projects, if any, the sales tax should be dedicated.

The city offices are in three floors of rented space in the Stephens Building on Garrison Avenue, for which it pays $156,000 a year in rent.

This article was published on Wednesday, January 17, 2001