More details about a community group promoting the eight-year, 1-cent sales and use tax in Searcy being made permanent were given Tuesday, including that the origin of the group calling itself Moving Searcy Forward stems back to the tax’s failure in the Feb. 9 special election.
“We really began from a place of questioning the reasonableness of the renewal and the need for the renewal,” said Will Moore, spokesman of the community group, during an “In the Know” Zoom forum hosted by the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We explored objective measures like Arkansas Legislative Audit. We reviewed the city’s financials.”
He said the group came to the conclusion that the request for the one-cent renewal “is both reasonable and it’s critically needed for the city of Searcy to continue.”
A second special election on making the tax permanent will be held Nov. 9. Early voting begins Nov. 2 at the White County Cooperative Extension Service Office, 2400 Landing Road, and will run 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays through Nov. 8. The temporary tax is set to expire in June 2022.
Moore said from the beginning, the 23-member community group has wanted this campaign to be one of “positivity.”
“In the past, there has been a lot of negative discourse in relation to this specific topic in the community,” he said. “Our group just wanted all the conversation to be as positive as it can for the simple reason that we all love Searcy. Searcy is a wonderful place with wonderful people.”
For Moore, he said the reason he’s a member of the group is pretty simple since he has three young children, Searcy is his hometown, where he grew up, and he said he looks forward to raising his children in Searcy and hopes one day they feel the same way he does about it.
“The one-cent renewal will have a critical impact, one way or another on all the citizens of Searcy,” Moore said.
In early August, the group sent a letter to Mayor Kyle Osborne and the Searcy City Council reflecting their findings and with the recommendation that they take the one-cent initiative back to the voters as soon as possible. The council then adopted a measure to put the tax on another special election ballot.
Moore said he is really proud of the group and he said it represents “a lot of corners of the community.” He said the members have put in a lot of hard work and it’s a group that loves Searcy and is willing to put forth the effort for their community.”
Moore also said he appreciates the chamber board’s adoption recently of a resolution to support the renewal of the one-cent tax, which was passed in February 2014.
“In 2021, the one-cent in February failed along with the A&P [Searcy Advertising and Tourism Promotion Commission] sports complex bond issue,” Moore said. “Today is today and not 2014; times have changed. The city’s needs have changed. The administration is different. The council is different.
“But we have been told the city faced some pretty serious fiscal distress. There were times when the city had some concerns about making payroll. There were also times that the city could have taken advantage of some city and state grants but didn’t have the cash on hand to take advantage of those. The way municipal grants work is that you put money out and then when the grants awarded, you get that money back and then a considerable sum more, but the city of Searcy didn’t even have the cash on hand at the time to put things out.”
Moore said the group compared Searcy’s sales tax rate to other communities across the state and wanted to look at the “big-ticket items” that Searcy spends money on and “some of the cost-of-living metrics in our community.”
Moore said the group started with expenditures for police, fire, sanitation and water and sewer. He said Searcy, which has a population of 22,937 according to the 2020 U.S. Census, spends below average on fire compared to the other communities listed, which were Jonesboro (pop. 78,576), Farmington (7,584), Jacksonville (29,477), Heber Springs (6,969), Conway (64,124), Sherwood (32,731). Maumelle (19,251), Russellville (28,940), Benton (35,014), Siloam Springs (17,287), Batesville (11,191), Bryant (20,663), Bentonville (54,164), Fayetteville (93,949) and Little Rock (202,591).
“We’ve got an ISO 1 rating,” he said, acknowledging that that is the highest Insurance Services Office rating a fire department can have. However, he said that spending on the department is below average even though residents can benefit from the rating on homeowners insurance costs.
He said he feels like the police presence in Searcy is “really wonderful” and that Searcy is a safe and secure community, but Searcy spends right on average on its police force. He said the city is a good steward of dollars and not excessively spending on police and fire.
Turning to sanitation and water fees, Moore said Searcy’s sanitation fee is below average. He said he has lived in other places and Searcy’s sanitation structure is “awesome” with the bulk trash, leaf and limb pickup and the once-a-week standard trash pickup. Moore said he has lived places where the bulk trash meant an extra fee and the leaf and limb was an extra fee.
Moore said Searcy residents pay below average for these services from sanitation and pay less for water than residents of other communities.
When it comes to the annual budget for the city, Moore said the city has about a $24 million annual budget and generates about $24 million in revenue, which he said is an “audited number.”
“If the one-cent revenues go away, Searcy faces a 27 percent budget shortfall,” Moore said. “With a 27 percent budget shortfall, we can all envision a future where we’ve got to make substantial cuts that will manifest themselves in such a way that the citizens of Searcy will really feel that impact in a negative way.”
Today, Moore said, Searcy generates a little bit over $800 per person with the one-cent tax. “Without the one-cent, Searcy will generate a little bit less than $600 per person,” Moore said, adding that the amount would be “well below average” compared to the communities included.
“I like to point out Batesville ... they are between $1,300 and $1,400 per person,” he said. “So often times you will hear somebody say, ‘Well, Cabot’s got this or Batesville’s got that,’ well, they have got a lot more to work with.”
He said Searcy is doing a lot of good things with less money than a lot of cities. Overall, he said the administrations in the past have done a good job on a shoestring budget.
“We certainly don’t want to face a future where Searcy has half the revenue of some of these other towns,” Moore said, adding that they don’t want the city going back to facing a fiscal distress environment.
In conclusion, Moore said “it takes a team” to share information about the tax. “We need help. We need as many volunteers as we can muster.” He said those interested can email firstname.lastname@example.org. The group is making calls to promote the tax and “going door to door to spread the word that their vote counts on Nov. 9th.”