If Beebe voters want municipal bonds to be issued to build a community center, they will also need to pass a three-quarter-cent sales and use tax, according to Mayor Mike Robertson.
“On the ballot it says you are voting on a bond issue. I hope they understand we are voting on a three-quarter-cent sales tax that is tied to that bond issue,” Robertson said. “If you vote yes on the bond issue and no on the sales tax, it’s all out the window.”
Early voting in the special election begins Tuesday at the White County Clerk’s Office, 315 N. Spruce St., and will be held weekdays from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. through next Monday. Election Day voting will be held from 7:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. at Beebe City Hall, 1201 W. Center St.
Robertson said the Beebe City Council decided to hold a special election on the tax, bond issue and a quarter-cent sales tax “for fire prevention and firefighting purposes” because “for the last number of years we have had council members, citizens and groups that had requested more recreation for our youth, so with that we have had a lot of requests for a community center. They want to compare Beebe to Searcy and Cabot and Lonoke.”
The bonds would be “in the maximum aggregate principle amount” of $6.205 million. The three-quarter-cent tax would be used to pay the bonds.
Robertson said the bonds would be for seven years for the first phase of the project, which is projected to cost around $5 million. He said if the community center tax is passed, it would probably be six to nine months before residents see anything started on the community center.
The second phase would be an add-on building that would include a full indoor swimming pool and a therapy pool for senior citizens, he said. He also said if the city looks to the future and builds this facility with administration offices in mind that would keep the city from having to pay somebody separate to be on site.
“I think if we take the administration offices and move them there ... we even talked about the water department for years has wanted to build and needed to build a new water office, well, why not incorporate that on site with the building, the community center, and let them have eyes and ears there also,” he said.
Phase one, though, would only be the community center, a banquet room, kitchen facilities, a full basketball court, a walking track above the basketball court and a game room, he said, adding that a mailer went out with the water bills to let Beebe residents know what the community center would include.
How long phase one takes will depend on revenue at the time, Robertson said. He said the hope would be that after four or five years, phase two could be started with indoor pool facilities. It will be built on the 24 acres near the city pond.
“I don’t know how the people will react” to the tax measure, he said. “It is a permanent tax. It is a three-fourths of one-cent sales tax and the only way that you can construct a community center and you can fund administration and the maintenance and the continued growth of it is by a permanent tax.
“We operate with our street fund and our general fund around $5 million a year, and that is very low compared to the cities that they are comparing us to. I know Lonoke built one [a community center] back probably 15-20 years ago and it was funded by a one-cent sales tax and that is the only way you can fund it. You have to obligate that tax.”
Robertson used the city of Searcy as an example. It passed an eight-year, one-cent sales tax in 2014, but voters declined in February to make it permanent and another special election is being held Nov. 9 to try again.
“Searcy [officials] have gotten theirself into a jam by tax that they went out and constructed [an indoor swim center] and had a permanent expense with a sunset tax, which was wrong to start with,” he said. “You can’t sunset a tax on permanent expenses.
“I felt like at the time that that happened that it was a mistake for them and now they are scrambling to get it back permanent or they are going to have to do away with some services. There is no way for them to fund all that and I don’t want that to happen to the city of Beebe. There is no way the city of Beebe can construct a community center, fund it and maintain it with their current revenue. It’s impossible; it can’t happen.”
He said whether voters want the city to build a community center is up to them.
“I have never been one to advocate for a sales tax. Never have I advocated for taxes,” Robertson said. “Right now, we’re at 1.8 mills on your real estate, personal taxes. That’s all the city gets, which is nearly nothing, and we’ve never raised that tax since the ‘80s.”
He said he doesn’t consider asking for a millage increase to be fair. “It is for people who are working out here and they want to acquire homes and property and they’re having to pay taxes and the other people don’t pay anything on them. The only fair tax is a sales tax where everybody pays the same amount. If you want to go to the restaurants, you have a choice to go. You have a choice to purchase a new car ... it’s a fair tax.”
While he believes a community center would be an asset, Robertson said he has mixed feelings about it as do some other council members. “It has been placed up on the people for their choice. If they want to tax themselves for a community center, then we will accept a democratic choice and we will move on and we will construct that.”
If voters do choose to build it, though, he thinks the city should move City Hall out to the new area and reconfigure the use of the current building and police department.
“The police department has just completely outgrown that building” it is in, Robertson said.”I think it’s a possibility you can take the courts and move them to this building [City Hall] and the police department could assume the building there with the jail. The court, street department office, code enforcement office possibly” could move to the City Hall building.
“We have a state police office down here. I think I can see giving up three or four of these offices to courts and administration of courts.”
Right now, though, there is not even a blueprint or architectural drawing for the first phase. Robertson said the city has done some preliminary plans, but he is not going to expend funds for “a bunch of architectural fees [for a center] that is voted down.”
He said he does believe the city would need the tax permanently to maintain the community center “and not short-change yourself by the time you build phase one and phase two.”
“I think we have a pretty good parks system and it looks nice and it is well maintained, but we spend $350,000 a year on parks. Just on parks, for park salaries, ball season,” he said, “and when you generate the revenue, people think that when they pay $45 for their child to play [ball] that you have an abundance of money.
“Well in reality, the revenue is $150,000 and the expenditures are $350,000. That comes out of your general fund money – and all cities are like that – so I believe when you take on all this in order to do maintenance and by the time you pay for all this, you are going to be ready for a remodel and by the time you pay again, you will be ready for new pool equipment. It is going to be a never-ending cycle. You are not going to have additional unspent revenues, gains in revenue, I don’t think you’re going to have.
Since the money will be geared strictly toward parks and recreation, he said, there may be a point when more baseball, softball and soccer fields will be built with the funds and when more lights are needed, Robertson said.
“If you have any excess money left over, it is to be spent only in recreational purposes,” he said. “This is a dedicated parks and recreational tax. Once you pay the bond off, you are going to need to start over.”
He also mentioned that the basketball equipment also would need to eventually be updated.
Although he’s not expecting a big turnout to vote in the special election, Robertson said “As a business owner, I’m going to accept it [the tax] if it passes.”
He said if the voter turnout for the city of 8,437 is 500 “I am going to be surprised.” He said the turnout for special elections is always small.
“I haven’t seen anyone out there beating the drum” for the community center tax,” Robertson said. “I am thinking it’s awful silent. I am putting things in the paper so people will have some facts and I am putting information in the water bills so people will be aware of the facts, but I have not been approached by a group or council people who wanted to say, ‘Let’s go do this.’”