Recently, the government of White County attempted to pass a 1% sales tax increase, ostensibly for the purposes of funding a bypass around the city of Searcy. This attempt failed, and members of the local government, as well as a few self-proclaimed “business leaders,” declared that anyone who was against this tax was against all taxes and all forms of “progress.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Many of the individuals who fought against the most recent proposed county tax increase have fought against other proposed tax increases in the city and the county over the past several years, but we have always provided specific reasoning for each tax we opposed. On the day of the A&P tax election, Buck Layne (president of the Searcy Chamber of Commerce) stopped by to talk to several of us about why we opposed that particular tax and we told him:
1) There was no sunset. Tax increases should almost always have a sunset (in fact, I think every tax at every level probably ought to have a 10 year sunset built in to let the people re-evaluate whether they want to keep paying it)
2) There was no dedicated purpose for the funds. There was a long list of possible proposed projects, but the text of the ordinance didn’t include a single project to fund with this money other than the nebulous concept of “economic development.”
3) The A&P commission. A&P commissions around the state have misused funds and abused their authority and to entrust hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer funds to them is a mistake.
4) The city of Searcy sidestepped the people. The people want as much say in their government as possible, and the city council in Searcy took it upon themselves to deprive the people of the opportunity to vote on their taxes.
Are we “against everything?” I can only speak for myself when I state that in 2005 I voted for the tax to rebuild the central fire station after it burned down, and I encouraged others to do so as well. During the A&P debate, I was one of many people who told our elected officials that the city should propose a dedicated and limited tax with a sunset clause (similar to the fire station tax) to fund the city’s capital improvement needs. In fact, last week I sent an email to Searcy’s mayor and city council once again suggesting that if the city has a specific capital project in mind (I specifically referred to the proposed bypass) they should consider passing a specifically targeted sunset tax to meet this need. I am now sharing that missive with all of you. Whether you support this particular idea or not, I encourage each and every one of you to contact your elected officials and let them know how you feel about taxes (and government in general) in Searcy.
My letter to our city government:
Mayor Morris and esteemed city council:
The county tax has failed. If you sincerely believe that the bypass is a good thing for the future of Searcy, you should now take steps to ensure that it comes into existence. What can you do? Listen to the people.
- In 2005 the elected government of Searcy asked its citizens for and received a temporary (9 month) 1% tax to replace the fire station which had burned down.
- In 2006 the elected government of Searcy asked for a permanent 1% tax for a variety of purposes (which included police, fire, and infrastructure projects) and the voters rejected the tax.
- In 2009 the elected government imposed a permanent 1% tax on prepared food and lodging for the stated purpose of economic development and the people forced an election on the issue and rejected the tax.
- In 2011 the elected government of White County asked its citizens for a temporary (21 month) 1% tax to re-distribute to all the cities around the county for infrastructure and economic development and the tax was rejected.
In 2009, a public hearing was held before the A&P tax was imposed on the people and several sentiments were expressed. I believe that if those sentiments had been heeded the city would be in much better shape today than it was then. Let me recap a few things that were said for those of you that were not part of the city government at the time.
- The people want infrastructure. The concept of “Economic Development” is nebulous at best and there are many well documented instances where this type of “dedicated” tax revenue has been abused all over the state in cities small and large.
- Along with that, the people are willing to tax themselves to provide for “needs” but not “wants.” Everybody wants some nice things in their life, but in difficult economic times we have to address the “needs” first.
- The people want a sunset on their taxes. They are perfectly willing to pass a tax on themselves if it is for a specific need, but they realize that those taxes should be for a specific amount of time to raise a targeted amount of money.
- The people want frugality. When the fire station burned down, the cost was estimated and the tax was designed to bring in slightly more than the cost to allow for overruns etc. The tax was not designed to bring in several times the necessary amount of revenue.
- The people don’t trust the government. This is an issue that needs to be addressed before “progress” is possible.
Having said all of that, I have always believed that constructive criticism is best. I will share with you a thought or two (similar to thoughts I shared with many of you years ago during another tax debate).
I believe the bypass would benefit Searcy in the long term and that it might provide some benefit in the short to medium term. I believe that if there was a tax proposal which limited itself to this topic it would easily succeed. Having said all of that, I believe you should consider a proposal to raise the sales tax by 1% for 6 months (which would generate approximately $3M) or by 0.5% for 12 months (which would generate approximately $3M) and that the ordinance should state that the revenue raised would go to the construction of the bypass and that any excess funds would go to the improvement of arteries leading to the bypass. I sincerely believe that this tax would pass and that in a year or so you could go back to the people with another specific capital improvement project (perhaps finishing work on the arteries to the bypass) and request another targeted sunset sales tax and the people would vote for it.
The people’s mistrust of their local government did not spring into existence overnight and it will not be fixed overnight. If you ask for a specific, limited tax for a specific, limited purpose and then follow through on that you can point to that and say “See, we kept our promises” and make a similar pledge and accomplish similar things in the future and through this process you can rebuild the trust of the people in their city government. If, however, you decide that in the face of the defeat of the tax at the county level you will pursue a similarly grand and nebulous plan at the city level, you will likely fail again and leave yourselves in a worse position than you are now in.
I will go even further. I will commit to all of you today that if you propose either a 1% tax which will sunset after 6 months or a 0.5% tax which will sunset after 12 months and that proposed tax is dedicated to the bypass project (and unencumbered by any permanent taxes proposed to go along with it), I will work as hard to support that tax proposal as I have worked to defeat the last two tax proposals (and this being an email to city officials, I realize I am going on the record as committing to this publicly).
I will gladly discuss this or any other topic with any of you.
Scott Biddle, Citizen of Searcy
Scott Biddle is formerly the Chairman of ‘Searcy Friends of the Voters,’ a Ballot Question Committee that formed in 2009 to advocate against the Searcy A&P Tax.
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