‘The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
— Proverbs 16:9
It’s easy to lose your way in the woods without a clear path to follow.
Growing up in central Alabama, there was a gravel pit and woods between the neighborhood my family lived in and a shopping center that all of us neighborhood kids frequented.
To get to the stores and a movie theater, we would either cross the gravel pit (not understanding at that age how dangerous that was) or walk a well-beaten path through the woods.
Kids being kids, we sometimes wandered off the path and inevitably became lost. Now, even though those woods seemed vast to us as children, there really wasn’t much to them, so we always eventually found our way home.
Although most kids don’t get to explore the woods on their own now like we did in the 1970s, we all can still lose our way today if we don’t have a path or map to follow.
Take, for example, the eight-year, one-cent sales tax passed by Searcy voters in 2014. It was much like those Alabama woods, not really big enough to stay lost in but enough to lose your way in for a while without a clear path. City officials laid out that path – the eight-year plan – for voters. and that’s what got the tax approved.
We’ve been able to use that map to see if officials have been following it, and they’ve been able to use it to stay on course even when going off in other directions might be strongly pulling at them. We’ve seen the fruits of their labors (and ours), even if not all of us agreed with everything in the plan.
Now, the Searcy City Council wants to make that tax permanent, deciding Tuesday to ask residents to vote on it in February alongside a bond issue for using other tax money to revamp the Searcy Sports Complex.
In April, Councilman Don Raney asked Mayor Kyle Osborne and City Clerk/Treasurer Jerry Morris to lay out a plan, like the city did in 2014, for using the 1-cent tax money. That hasn’t been presented to the council yet, but even if it is, there is no way to completely plan for 30, 40, 50 years from now.
That’s one of the problems with a permanent tax, you go from being in the woods to being in the jungle, and it’s far easier to get lost along the way to your destination, even if you have one. Taxes that sunset allow for concise planning and allow voters to see if their leaders are using the money in the ways they promised.
Now, of course, a tax with an expiration date also makes longer-term planning more difficult because it’s possible voters won’t support it when it comes up for renewal. City officials could end up with some difficult choices to make on what they can no longer afford to do or offer, for instance, if voters reject the tax in February.
Officials don’t want to always be waiting for that shoe to drop and unable to do some things for the city that can’t really be afforded in a shorter term. And voters don’t want the city to tax them just to keep adding expenses. They want to know how their hard-earned money is going to be used, so they can decide if they support that.
The majority of the voters decided they did support the city’s path through the woods in 2014. To get them to back an unending trek through the jungle, though, city officials likely need to do two things.
First, they need to lay out an initial plan for using the money. It can have very long-term goals, but needs to have mostly short-term goals (10 years or fewer) so voters can see where the city is going.
The council has discussed this, mentioning such things as a community center, outdoor pool at the Searcy Swim Center, a new library and improving bike and walking trails. However, over the next few months, the city needs to give its residents opportunities to give their input and develop a clear path for using the tax revenue.
Second, the council needs to set up a committee or task force to do the same thing every eight to 10 years (much like the Searcy Advertising and Tourism Promotion Commission oversees use of A&P revenue, except the whole council would eventually have to approve each 1-cent plan). Although some of the tax money will need to go toward day-to-day operations as upkeep increases, these funds need to remain distinct from other funding sources for the city so the money is not just blended into one pot.
If the council does not lay out a plan and keep mapping it out, inevitably it will lose its way. And it’s much harder to find the path home again when you’re in the jungle.