Mayor Bob Freeman of Van Buren is calling for an increase to the city’s sales tax to fund a wide range of city improvements.
At Monday’s State of the City meeting (Feb. 27), Freeman encouraged city council members to support a one-cent increase to pay for a proposed fire station, police station, and “senior inn” to serve senior citizens.
Freeman estimates that a new police station would cost roughly $3.5 million, while a new fire station would run $2.5 million. He hopes to gain voter approval of $10 million in bonds, which would pay for these expenditures. The remaining $4 million would help pay for a "senior inn" (approximately $2.5 million) and park improvements (approximately $1.5 million).
Freeman hopes to revitalize Lee Creek Park and Veterans Park, and allocate land for a future city park. He also foresees the same disbursement improving restrooms at the City Park, tennis court lighting, and softball field facilities.
"All it takes is a penny," Freeman said, noting that half of the proposed 1-cent increase would pay for operations and would last permanently. The other half would sunset once the cost of new construction is met.
Approximately 50% of the operations side would pay for emergency services (fire and police operations), while 10% would go to parks and 10% would pay for "miscellaneous operations," such as the "library, downtown restrooms, and other smaller things that add up," Freeman said.
Fifteen percent of the operations funding would also pay for economic development, and the last 15% would go into reserve.
"In the next six years, we may say, 'This is not hurting us. Why don't we take that (half) cent (that's going to sunset) and dedicate it to the next phase. Use it to repair a fire station or tackle drainage improvements?'" Freeman told The City Wire following the meeting.
Freeman continued: "A critical piece of this (increase) has to do with economic development, so we can be a serious player. Because the development we're going to see south of us, eventually, we have to be prepared for."
"Construction will never be cheaper, and borrowing rates will never be lower. It's time for us to step up. We're not asking anyone to go above and beyond everyone else. Van Buren will still be the cheapest place in the county to live," Freeman added.
He noted that Mulberry, Alma, and Greenwood — "all three cities that operate with a volunteer fire department," he said — as cities that post higher sales tax and millage rates than Van Buren.
Should voters be asked to approve the increase, Van Buren's city sales tax could rise to 2%, matching Mulberry and Alma, and going slightly higher than Greenwood's 1.75%.
Freeman is hoping the council will approve the plan in April and set a special election for July. That would allow part of the infrastructure funding to trickle in by October (2012), while the operations would kick in "sometime in March (2013)," he said.
POLICE AND FIRE DEPARTMENT
The Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) resulted in 20 opened cases and 16 arrests for 2011.
"I wish with all my heart it could have been 17," Freeman said, referencing the February 2012 murder of 16-year old Angela Allen, who met 36-year old convicted rapist Lloyd Jones on the social network mBuzzy, and whose body was found on Jones' brother's property more than a week after the girl's disappearance.
Jones was arrested and has entered a plea of not guilty to first-degree murder. At Monday night's meeting, Freeman commended the ICAC on the arrests that were made.
"It's still 16 that are off the street. These are individuals that came into our community seeking, maybe not the same results of what happened, but who knows what could have happened?" Freeman said.
Police department runs were down in 2011 to 47,895 from 52,794 in 2010. In contrast, fire department runs were up more than 12% from 1,837 in 2010 to 2,060 in 2011. The city hired three additional firefighters with 100% federal funding in 2011, but with the largest number of runs since at least 2005, Freeman noted, a new station is needed to preserve the city's Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating.
As in 2010, the 2011 expenses predominately went to pay for the police department (30%) and the fire department (26%).
BUILDING PERMITS AND TAX RECEIPTS
Building permits on the commercial side fell to the lowest number in the new century. In 2010, there were nine permits for a valuation of $15.747 million. In 2011, the number fell to five permits for a valuation of $1.495 million, a mere fraction of the city's highest output, which was seen in 2004 (14 permits, $20.628 million).
Residentially, numbers were also near the bottom of the barrel, falling from 136 permits valued at $24.621 million in 2007 to 59 valued at $8.748 million in 2011.
County sales tax receipts for 2011 were up slightly from $2.143 million the previous year to $2.229 million. Likewise, city sales tax receipts rose from $3.407 million in 2010 to $3.513 million in 2011. Revenue from fines fell from $478,390 in 2010 to $388,937 in 2011, while franchise tax receipts saw a one-year increase from $1.450 million (2010) to $1.517 million (2011).
Also Monday night, the Southside Drainage Improvement Project, which will entail the areas of Vine, 11th, and Drennen Streets, was awarded to Goodwin & Goodwin, Inc.
Goodwin & Goodwin submitted the lowest bid of $239,118. Freeman said heavy rains bring heavy flooding and "water backs up even during a medium rain." He noted the project was in the "100-year flood plain," so it would not correct the issue, but it would "make a big difference for lighter rains."