City, county and state officials met Tuesday to consider issues that impact the area and receive updates of ongoing projects such as the intermodal port study on the Arkansas River.
Subjects discussed at the intergovernmental meeting held at the Alma Senior Center at noon included the intermodal study, a regional HAZMAT team, online tax collections and the future of the state General Improvement Fund.
Sasha Grist, Western Arkansas Planning and Development District executive director, updated attendees on an intermodal port study for a location on the Van Buren side of the Arkansas River.
Western Arkansas Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority (WA-RITA), which is overseen by WAPDD, facilitated a $200,050 contract with John Vickerman of Virginia-based Vickerman and Associates to perform the study.
Five bodies - including Crawford and Sebastian counties, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA), and the cities of Fort Smith and Van Buren - paid an equal portion of $40,000 toward the contract.
“It took a little bit of time to get everyone to sign the intermodal port agreement … (but) they did all sign,” Grist said. “We signed the contract with John Vickerman last week.”
Vickerman has begun work on the project and will give a report of his progress to WA-RITA at the end of each month beginning May 31, which will be provided to all five entities who paid for his contract, Grist said.
Both State Sen. Bryan King and State Rep. Charlene Fite spoke on the difficulties of the most recent legislative session.
King voiced his disappointment in the possible reduction of the General Improvement Fund after a former Arkansas representative recently plead guilty to taking a kickback from the GIF grants he helped secure for a private Christian college.
“If we have a (state budget) surplus, I want it distributed fairly around the state,” King said. “I feel like GIF did that.”
Crawford County has received numerous GIF grants over the years, small and large, including one in 2015 for $20,000 to pay for the siren warning system at Van Buren Fire Station No. 4.
King also explained that legislators failed to pass a measure to collect online sales tax because it was unclear where the money would be used, he said.
“Once it goes into the big pot, it could be used for anything,” King said.
Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman appealed to attending legislators to reconsider the tax collection, noting that it could be used to boost local city budgets and help pay for city services such as police and fire.
“That sales tax collection on internet sales could be an asset at the local level,” Freeman said.
Fite said that much of the legislators’ time had been taken up with working to implement the medical marijuana bill, but voiced her pride in their passing of a measure to exempt retired military pay from state taxes.
Crawford County Emergency Management Director Brad Thomas discussed the county’s work to form a regional HAZMAT team. Thomas currently is looking for funding to improve area HAZMAT capabilities, he said.