February 8, 2012 by Jamie Smith
FAYETTEVILLE – A potential tax increase vote was cause for a lengthy discussion during the Jan. 12 Washington County Quorum Court meeting.
Ozark Regional Transit, which offers public transportation through scheduled rides and fixed routes in Benton and Washington County, wants to ask Washington County voters for a quarter-cent sales tax increase. The estimated $7 million in revenue would be used to overcome a budget shortfall, as well as expand services. The discussion came up Jan. 12 because the measure must have several readings before being placed on the ballot.
Federal law dictates that Ozark Regional Transit will lose a large chunk of its federal funding because of population increases shown in the 2010 U.S. Census. This spring, ORT approached both the Washington County and Benton County quorum courts, asking that the sales tax increase request be allowed on the ballot.
Washington County gave the go-ahead for it to be on the ballot, clarifying that it was not necessarily an endorsement for the measure. Benton County, on the other hand, voted against allowing the measure to go to the voters. If the measure passes in Washington County, all money raised in Washington County would go to support transportation services in this county.
New information that the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department released last week led several citizens—and justices of the peace—to ask the Court to reconsider placing the sales tax increase on the ballot this spring.
Mike Malone with the Northwest Arkansas Council said that the state will ask voters for a half-cent sales tax increase this November, which will be used to build and repair highways. Each county and city would get a portion of those funds, which he proposed could be partially dedicated towards helping the public transit system. His concern, Malone said, is that by asking for a quarter-cent sales tax increase this spring would jeopardize the second sales tax increase proposal in the fall.
“Win or lose, there’s only so many times you can ask for a tax increase from people,” he said.
Malone proposed that ORT ask the highway department to work with them to create a joint proposal that would mean a one-time vote and the money would be divided between highways and public transportation.
JP Lance Eads agreed.
“I won’t support [placing the ORT measure on the ballot] because it’s not the best opportunity and we need to be able to better package it,” he said.
Other JPs said they would vote next month to place the measure on the ballot because they had given their word in March to ORT that they would let the Washington County voters decide if they wanted the tax increase or not.
Several residents spoke on the issue: some in favor of the proposal going forward immediately, some against the proposal entirely; and others asked the Quorum Court to wait.
There was no vote taken but it is expected to be on the agenda for the February meeting. For more information about the proposal, including research and potential new routes, visit www.ozark.org.
In other county news, the Quorum Court reversed a decision to increase doctor visit co-pays for county employees because the county received word from its insurance company that increasing the co-pay would make the county lose its “grandfathered” status under new healthcare laws.
If the co-pays were increased, the county would be required to abide by healthcare insurance laws that otherwise would not go into effect until 2014. This would increase the county’s costs by at least 38 percent.
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