Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman is concerned.
As the city gears up for its July 10 special election to decide on plans for a proposed 1% increase in the Sales and Use Tax, Freeman looks to the May 22 primary, and what he described as “poor voter turnout” as a major cause for this concern.
While uncertain of the exact number, Freeman said “it was around 17% or 18% (participation),” when he spoke to The City Wire by phone on Wednesday (June 13).
“We can talk to and educate people about the benefits this investment initiative will provide, but if they don’t show up to vote, what can we do?”
Freeman said the ballot question was also an issue he wanted to address.
“The way the ballot is presented, the improvements for firefighting, police, parks, and the senior center are laid out individually as being supported by 0.5% of the 1%,” Freeman explained. “It’s important for voters to understand, these capital improvements are not a half-cent each. Rather, all four areas are covered by a single .50%, which will sunset in seven years unless the voters decide otherwise.”
Freeman emphasized he “or the city council can't extend it. It would need voter approval to go beyond the sunset period,” and added that “only 0.5%, for operations and maintenance of the new facilities,” will be permanent.
The one-cent tax would fund approximately $10 million in new bonds that would be used to build a new police station ($3.5 million), a new fire station ($2.5 million), a new Senior Center ($2.5 million), and address park improvements ($1.5 million).
Freeman noted there was “no organized opposition” to the increase, but that “some individuals have said, ‘We agree with what you’re trying to do, but we are just generally opposed to tax increases,’ and I understand that.”
But what Freeman doesn’t understand is this: “Even if the 1% passes, we’ll still be 0.25% less than Fort Smith, and we’ve got a lot of people, who shop in Fort Smith now. They’re willing to go there to spend an extra penny and a quarter (1.25%), and I’m not being negative here, but the fact is: why can’t we invest in ourselves?” Freeman said.
The group Citizens for Van Buren’s Future (CVBF) is doing just that, by trying to change the awareness and excitement levels of the city’s voting population.
Led by treasurer Lisa Huckelbury, and formally endorsed by the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, the group has launched a privately funded direct mail campaign to drum up support for the 1% increase. (Link here for a PDF copy of a campaign brochure.)
Freeman said the city cannot fund CVBF in any way, but revealed the campaign has cost the group “less than $10,000” overall, and that donations should be made directly to CVBF.
Freeman also indicated he is striving for transparency with the voters, referencing a recent pay-to-play controversy in Rogers, and stating that Stephens, Inc., the underwriter for bond authorization, “is not one of the contributors (to the Sales and Use Tax campaign).”
“We haven’t asked them, and don’t want them to make any contributions,” Freeman said.