Alma voters will be going to the polls March 11 for a special election on a 1-cent sales tax that will help pay for several upcoming projects, city officials said.
A 1-cent sales tax has been in place in Alma since 1998, approved by voters in three separate elections for specific projects, said Mayor John Ballentine.
Initially the tax was used to purchase three fire trucks and build two stations for the fire department, said Mark Yardley, Alma public works director.
The two consecutive uses, including the current tax, were for water and sewer improvements, Yardley said. Each time the tax would sunset and be re-approved voters by for a new project.
This time city officials are asking for something a little different.
"Instead of asking for a tax every eight or 10 years, the city council decided to ask for a permanent tax this time," Ballentine said.
If approved, the 1-cent tax would go to the city’s general fund to be used for a number of future projects.
Projects that could be paid for with the tax, if approved, include street-scaping, new fire trucks and expanded fire stations, road rebuilds, and general improvements to the city’s downtown area.
Once the Arkansas 162 relocation project is completed, the city will be taking over the section of street from Arkansas 64 to Fayetteville Avenue, which was previously maintained by the state. The entire section will need drainage and to be rebuilt, Yardley said.
Yardley also hopes to complete some beautification projects for downtown that might include street lamps, trees and hanging plants, he said. Park improvements are another possibility, Yardley said.
Alma Fire Chief Eddie Wakefield also has a list of projects in mind, including the replacement of two aging fire trucks that has to happen whether or not the tax passes, he said.
Wakefield also would like to see the expansion or addition of fire stations, he said.
"I’m trying to get us on a program where we’re not replacing everything we have every 20 years," Wakefield said.
Road improvements alone would cost millions, and the fire department project costs would be "significant," Yardley said.
"If we don’t get this 1 cent sales tax, none of this can happen," Yardley said.
While city officials have certain projects in mind, because the tax money goes into the general fund instead of toward debt on a specific project, nothing is set in stone.
"Even though currently it’s used 100 percent for capital expense, the way the [upcoming] sales tax is written, it doesn’t have to be. It can be used for some operational expenses," Yardley said.
By "operational expenses," Yardley means the day-to-day costs to operate the city rather than a special project, such as street improvements.
Once the tax went into effect, it would be up to the city council to allocate the money.
"It actually falls in the hands of the council as to where the money goes and what needs it first," Ballentine said.
Council members would actually have two choices for special projects, Ballentine said.
They could "float" a bond issue for a certain project, and use the tax money to pay on the debt, or access Arkansas Amendment 78, which allows the city to borrow money to finance a project for up to five years without penalty.
Another concern may be city leadership. Ballentine is completing his last year as Alma mayor, he said.
Though mayoral candidates have yet to announce, rumors contend that two may come from the council, leaving those seats open for contest as well.
If the tax is passed in March, Wakefield said council members - himself included - will have a chance to get projects lined up before new city officials are in place.
If the tax fails to pass, current city officials still will have time to put together a bond issue, project-specific tax ballot before the current tax sunsets later this year.