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Amid Controversy, ORT Millage Put on Ballot

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March 26, 2012 by Jamie Smith

Photo: Facebook

WASHINGTON COUNTY – Washington County voters will be given the option to vote on a quarter-cent sales tax this May after the Washington County Quorum Court voted 7-4 to send it to the ballot.

The vote came during the Court’s March 8 meeting. Justices of the Peace (JPs) Lance Eads, Butch Pond, Tom Lundstrom and Rick Cochran voted against placing the measure on the ballot.

If passed, the quarter-cent sales tax will provide $7.5 million annually for Ozark Regional Transit (ORT) to expand its

Washington County services. A similar measure was sought in Benton County but the Benton County Quorum Court voted against placing it on the ballot.

This was the third time the Washington County JPs faced the issue because the law requires that the measure be read three times before being finalized. The JPs and County Judge Marilyn Edwards issued a statement to the standing-room only crowd that read:

“The role of the Quorum Court in this matter is to determine whether or not the proposed tax should be referred to the electorate, not whether or not they are for or against the tax. The County Judge presides over the Quorum Court without a vote and does not have the power to veto ordinances referring a measure to the electorate.”

As in the two previous monthly meetings, the JPs heard from large groups of people on both sides of the issue—and each side had two reasons for their respective positions.

Some were begging for the measure

to be placed on the ballot because of the need for public transportation, others said it should be placed on the ballot to give Washington County residents the ability to make their own decision on the tax. Oth- ers were equally fervent about the sales tax not making it to the ballot for one of two reasons.

One reason claims that Ozark Regional Transit has either not been forthcoming about the intended use of the money, or that ORT officials have actually been fraudulent in their claims that funding would be lost and fixed routes would be reduced. Others are opposed to the idea that the vote will happen in May instead of November, when voter turnout is expected to be higher.

The JPs were also divided among the four positions. Interestingly, the division was not necessarily between conservatives and liberal court members. Many were concerned about new information that is coming to light that disputes what ORT told the court members a year ago when this matter was initially broached.

For example, it appears that the law that said ORT would lose more than $150,000 in federal funding because of the 2010 census numbers might be changed, meaning that the funding might not be lost if the tax fails. This had originally been threatened as a strong possibility if more funding was not received.

Some fixed routes that were initially thought to be at risk will remain in place because the involved entities have contracts with ORT to provide services. One example is Northwest Arkansas Community College, which pays a matching fee for students to have access to ORT services for their classes, said Jerry Van Hoose from ORT on Sunday. Students had been told via email from some employees of the college that all fixed routes would be lost, implying those that students use.

Several JPs said they wanted the measure to be in November instead of May because voter turnout is usually higher in general presidential elections than a primary. Some were also concerned about the ability to get accurate information about the measure in time for a May election.

The JPs who voted for the measure said that it was up to the voters to decide if they wanted the tax and that there is enough time for voters to make an informed decision. The election will be May 22.

The JPs also tabled an ordinance that would give the county the right to abate property deemed to be a nuisance.

Jamie Smith

is an experienced news reporter who now works as a writer for multiple avenues. Smith, her husband and two kitties recently moved to Washington County where she enjoys setting up their new home and scrapbooking. Visit her website Jamie's Notebook

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  1. David Orr says:

    Thank you for your article regarding the transit vote that will be on the Washington County ballot in May. For the record I would like to correct some minor points.

    First, this is not a “millage” vote, as your headline states. The term millage refers to property tax, and this is a sales tax–as the text of the article correctly states. It is important that voters understand that this ballot measure will NOT affect residents’ property taxes.

    Second, the article* repeats the charge made at the Quorum Court meeting and in the Northwest Arkansas Times that Ozark Regional Transit has misrepresented facts about the need for additional revenue. These allegations are untrue and have no basis in fact.

    As Mark Twain supposedly said, “a lie can travel halfway ’round the world before the Truth gets up and puts its shoes on.”

    What is true, and your article does mention this fact, is that the federal transportation authorization bill–the legislation that determines eligibility for transit agencies like ORT to receive funding– awaits passage but is mired in the same partisan squabbles that have resulted in repeated threats to shut down the federal government. Until Congress resolves the question of whether agencies like ORT will continue to receive funding, the transportation bill is going nowhere. Meanwhile Congress voted in March to continue for ninety days the current funding levels and eligibility requirements that have been in effect for the last six years. So long as Congress continues to fund transit with these “continuing resolutions” the existing funding rules remain in effect, which means that ORT will become ineligible for the bulk of the funding it currently receives.

    Additionally, the current level of funding from the feds is dependent on local contributions as a percentage of the overall appropriation. Unfortunately, local governments in Washington and Benton Counties have not increased their contributions in the decade since ORT’s fixed routes were established. That has held the federal share constant over the same time as well. Yet the population of the two counties has increased by approximately 100,000 people–a more than thirty percent increase. Fuel prices and capital equipment costs have increased significantly over that period. Thus the funding for local transit in real dollars and on a per-capita basis has DROPPED significantly in the previous decade.

    Voters need to be well informed of these and other relevant facts before they go to the polls in May. I look forward to more coverage of transit issues ing the Washington County Observer!

    * [The article states, “One reason claims that Ozark Regional Transit has either not been forthcoming about the intended use of the money, or that ORT officials have actually been fraudulent in their claims that funding would be lost and fixed routes would be reduced.”]

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