The Crawford County Quorum Court has moved a little closer to putting a tax measure before voters, according to County Judge John Hall.
Hall said it was likely that the that the Court would vote in January 2014 to place a 1 cent sales tax initiative to pay for a new county jail on the May 20, 2014, ballot. He said the timing was scheduled to not conflict with a sales tax election to take place in Alma, as well as to save the county money by placing the proposal on the same ballot as the primary elections for all statewide offices, including governor.
"What I've decided, and I think is best based on conversations with people around the county, is that we probably put it on the primary election. We'll save $40,000 and the issue will be … they'll vote on it the same time they vote on other races in the primaries. It will save the county between $30,000 and $40,000 by doing that and actually, it will get a lot more broad-based people coming to vote, you know? Because you'll have a lot larger turnout than you would on a special election and we'll get a lot more of an indication of how the general public feels and their sentiment."
The proposal, which has not yet been finalized by the Quorum Court, would be a 1 cent sales tax that would last for between five and six years, though Hall has previously said the tax could be paid off within four years based on current sales tax collections.
The funds would be used for public safety, specifically for the construction of a new county jail that could house more than 300 inmates, versus the 88 beds at the county's facility on Main Street in Van Buren.
In all, the jail construction would run about $20 million, less expensive than a previous $24 million proposal put forward by Sheriff Ron Brown earlier this year.
Following the full repayment of bonds issued for the project, Hall is proposing a smaller sales tax amount be made permanent to allow for jail operations and public safety. The amount currently proposed is a 1/4-cent tax.
Should voters approve the tax, it would increase the collective sales tax rate in the county's two largest cities to some of the highest in the nation. Van Buren now has a sales tax of 9.5%, as does Alma. In addition to the regular sales tax rate of 9.5%, which includes sales tax for local, county and state, Alma charges an extra 1% in taxes at restaurants and hotels (hospitality tax), meaning a trip to the local fast food joint has a sales tax rate of 10.5%.
An increase of 1% would mean diners in Alma would be paying a sales tax rate of 11.5%. Van Buren also has a 1% hospitality tax. The highest sales tax rate in the nation is 12.725% in Tuba City, Ariz., a figure which does include a hospitality tax.
When reached by telephone today (Oct. 22), Alma Mayor John Ballentine was surprised that the election for the county jail sales tax proposal looked to be moving forward in May versus March when voters in his city will vote on the renewal of a one cent sales tax. The tax renewal would pay for improvements to the fire department, police department and purchase right-of-ways and re-route utilities in advancement of a planned bypass to be built around the city's downtown area.
As for whether having two tax measures before voters in two months will affect the chances of Alma's sales tax renewing, Ballentine said he didn't think the campaign for the county tax would affect the city's special election.
"I don't think city voters will be confused," he said, adding that the one cent renewal for Alma will be broken into different, clearly stated ballot issues. "They could all pass or they could all fail. But it will be easy to read and state what it funds."
That said, Ballentine does not think the county tax will easily pass, adding that it is tougher to pass a new tax than it is to pass a renewal.
"Getting that tax to pass is tough. People just aren't going to vote for taxes. Our millage just failed. So you look at that, you pretty much look at that and it's a tough sell. You have to sell the public on what you're doing. It's just like a coin toss right now. It depends on what the county does for public awareness."
Hall said he was aware of how tough the sell will be, though he said a state review committee is pushing the county to be in compliance with capacity, otherwise the county will have to continue transporting inmates to other counties, incurring costs they wouldn't otherwise if the county had a large enough jail.
"The jail is still the issue and the jail is the issue because of the money, the funding mechanism that will (be needed) to make it work. And it's going to be out there until we make some sort of decision, pro or con. And at the present time, we allocated the money to fix some stuff that the review committee said we needed to do – and that's some plumbing and some electrical. So we are doing everything that they have asked us to do on the present jail, except we can't change the square footage. That's one issue that they've got in there that we can't do anything about. We can't go in there and revamp it and change it because the way it's built, it just can't be done. So we are going to answer all the complaints they have except being able to increase the square footage or whatever."