Searcy residents will now have two things to decide in a Feb. 9 special election after the Searcy City Council decided Tuesday night to put permanently extending the eight-year, 1-cent sales and use tax before voters at the same time as a bond issue for improvements to the Searcy Sports Complex.
The temporary tax is set to expire April 30, 2021, according to Mayor Kyle Osborne. It was passed by Searcy voters Feb. 11, 2014, by 64.37 percent (1,987 votes), with 35.63 percent against the measure (1,100). The levy went into effect July 1, 2014, and began being distributed to the city that September.
An eight-year plan was drawn up for using the tax before it was placed before voters. It included street resurfacing and improvement, improving drainage and flooding problems and building a pool, Information Technology Department building, new Fire Station No. 2 and Searcy Sports Complex facilities along with the purchase of equipment and filling staffing needs. The plan also included, among other things, an average of $360,000 annually for a reserve/opportunity fund that has been used for other projects such as reestablishing the Holiday of Lights.
City Clerk/Treasurer Jerry Morris said when he came to work for the city in late 2012, the city had a half-cent permanent tax “in effect for years and years and years and the city got to a point where that half-cent tax was not covering our day-to-day expenses as well as our million dollar LOPFI [Local Police and Fire Retirement System] obligation and other stuff. So it kind of came to be as a ‘have-to situation’ because it was taking everything we could do just to keep the city open and there was no money left over for projects, replacing aging sanitation equipment, replacing aging fire and police equipment; there just wasn’t anything there available other than the day-to-day operations.”
In April, Osborne said because of the COVID-19 outbreak and its effects on the economy that “this may not be the right time” to put the tax renewal on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.
“We can still work towards it,” Osborne said then. “In light of what we’re dealing with right now, I think it would be a good idea to put it off for now.”
The council voted to table making a decision at that time, and Councilman Don Raney asked Osborne and Morris to lay out a plan for the tax’s use, like the city did for 2014.
He said the city needs “to have a proposal for the citizens to know what that money is going to be spent for ... the categories, like equipment or salary or even talking about a new library and talking about a new outdoor pool at the pool center, things like that.”
Some of the things that the public wants, based on a past survey, Councilman Rodger Cargile said, are “a multi-use community center; of course, the library always comes around. These projects that we hear about are not definite; it is not something we say we’re going to do. Further input needs to happen before we decide exactly what we’re going to do. Improved bike and walking trails are other projects people have been interested in.”
The council has not discussed a planned use for the tax money since that meeting.
The other item on the special election ballot will be a bond issue requested by the Searcy Advertising and Tourism Promotion Commission that would allow for an estimated $8.4 million overhaul at the Searcy Sports Complex, including four artificial turf baseball fields and four artificial turf softball fields that would help solve the problem of rained-out games. Also included in improvements would be about 700 new parking spots to address the overflowing parking lot issues.
“This is the use of existing A&P [tax] revenue,” Osborne said. City Attorney Buck Gibson has said that “it is simply a way to leverage money that’s already being collected to provide a big project.”
Osborne said a presentation was given a little over a year ago when the City Council passed the A&P tax “showing them the condition of our park system here in Searcy, including the sports complex.”
He has said that the improvements would be “for the Searcy Sports Complex, baseball, softball, soccer, football, adult softball, everything out there and even later down the road, we are even looking at the possibility of a pool.
“It is not a new tax. We are not asking for anything anybody is not paying already,” Osborne said. “This is just giving us the money to work with and finance it instead of trying to piece it together a little bit at a time. This just gives us the influx of money to do it all and do it at the same time.”
Hosting big tournaments is the goal for the Searcy Sports Complex, according to Searcy A&P Commission Chairman and Councilman Chris Howell and Osborne. Howell has mentioned other improvements such as new dugouts, fencing and other things that would improve the aesthetics.