(Times Record (Fort Smith, AR) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 03--ALMA -- The continuation of a 1 percent sales tax is vital for a number of capital improvement projects in Alma, city officials say.
The city has an existing 1 percent tax that will sunset in August, and city officials are looking to residents to extend the tax to help pay for city projects. The tax has been in place since 1998, and has been approved three additional times for specific projects.
City officials previously proposed a permanent 1 percent tax, but it was rejected in March. That tax was slated for the city's general fund for capital improvements or other projects as needed that the Alma City Council deemed necessary, rather than toward specific projects.
On the Aug. 12 ballot, voters will consider seven separate improvement projects, including street improvements, fire and police department upgrades, parks and recreation projects, a downtown streetscape, parking and a refinancing bond.
Mayor John Ballentine outlined the merits of each project and the importance in keeping the city moving forward.
"We want to keep Alma growing and moving forward and to do that, you have to have a good parks system, police, fire and roads to take people here," he said. "We don't want to get stagnant and not be able to do anything. We'd like to keep progress going. You make it a nice town, the population goes up, and it helps everybody."
Requests include more than $4.6 million in proposed projects from the Fire Department.
Fire Chief Eddie Wakefield said he would like to replace fire trucks, equipment, and remodel or make upgrades to the city's four fire stations.
Wakefield said since the tax first passed in 1998, the department and the community have grown.
"It'd be the first time we've upgraded since the tax passed," Wakefield said. "The Fire Department has to grow with the community and unfortunately, the cost of equipment has more than doubled since the tax passed."
Wakefield's plan includes replacing two trucks and adding two more, upgrade equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus to get to most current standard and making upgrades or remodels to the city's fire facilities. Wakefield mentioned that funding would be dedicated solely to capital improvements.
"One of the most important things is that not one dime of this goes toward wages, as we're all 100 percent volunteer," Wakefield said. "We want to continue to move forward and keep the community safe."
Police Chief Russell White says although his proposed project request is smaller than the other six requests, it still is important to allow the department to be more efficient and successful at solve and prevent crime.
If the $575,000 police portion of the tax is passed, that money would go to pay for several projects, including the purchase of equipment needed to join a wireless network to allow for better communication between officers and other outside agencies, White said.
White also plans to replace and update the department's in-car camera system, computer networking system and the speed-detection radar equipment.
He said the updates are necessary to keep the police department effective and to provide a safe community.
Public Works Director Mark Yardley said plans also include $1.9 million in proposed street projects.
The street improvements include a utility-relocation project along Arkansas 162 and repairing and rebuilding drainage areas along a section of street from Arkansas 64 to Fayetteville Avenue.
Of the visible projects on the ballot roster, Yardley considers a $2.5 million downtown streetscaping project as one that could launch the economy in the city.
"We see the streetscaping project as being a catalyst for the improvement to downtown, as it will hopefully will entice potential business owners to move in downtown," Yardley said. "It helps Alma in our sense of place, where our downtown could become a destination again. It makes the community more attractive."
The city hosted two public information tax hearings and Yardley said although they were not as well attended as officials hoped, the city received good feedback from those in attendance and hoped it would influence their decision to support the efforts.
"People have asked us for years to do something with the downtown area," Yardley said. "This is the only legal solution we have."
Yardley said plans also include a $375,000 project that would provide more downtown parking.
Other plans include $862,500 in upgrades to park and recreational facilities and a $1.15 million refinancing bond.
Current Tax Rate 9.5 Percent
Yardley refuted the claim of an anonymous flier claiming the passage of the tax will make Alma's sales tax rate among the highest in the nation.
According to figures from the Arkansas Department of Finance, the current sales tax rate in Alma is 9.5 percent, equal to the sales tax in Van Buren. Fort Smith's sales tax rate is 9.75 percent, equal to the city of Springdale. The state imposes a 6.5 percent sales tax.
"Across the state, after all taxes are considered, there's about 42 cities with an equal or higher tax than Alma," Yardley said.
Ballentine is hopeful voters are receptive to the tax.
"It's hard to get a gauge on how people feel or how it's going to go," Ballentine said. "I'd be glad to get them all passed, but I'm hopeful at least some will be approved."
If all of the projects are passed, the tax would sunset in 2024 and the total debt service would be around $12 million, Ballentine said.
Early voting begins Tuesday. Voters may cast their ballots early at the Crawford County Clerk's Office at the county courthouse in Van Buren. Polls are open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday excluded.
Three polling locations will be open in Alma on Election Day from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m..
More information on the tax can be found at www.cityofalma.org and the Alma Sales Tax Facebook page.
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