A sales tax increase that was approved by Jefferson County voters to fund economic development will come off the books in 2018. At a meeting of the Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County Tuesday, Chairman George Makris asked the group, commonly called the Tax Board, to let the tax sunset and not pursue its renewal.
The three-eighths cent tax was a part of the so-called “Penny for Progress” that was pushed by former Pine Bluff Mayor Carl A. Redus in 2011, with the remaining five-eighths of the tax used for infrastructure improvements in Pine Bluff. Those improvements included renovation of the Joe Thomas Public Safety building and two existing fire stations, the construction of a new fire station, new fire trucks, improvements to the ball field at Townsend Park and street and drainage work.
That five-eighths cent tax did not carry a sunset clause, and the money that is being collected is being used to pay off bonds that were issued for the renovations. The remaining three-eighths cent tax was approved for seven years, and according to Makris will cease collection in 2018.
“There’s some dispute between the Department of Finance and Administration on when it will end,” Makris said, adding that while the tax was approved by voters in February, collections didn’t start until June.
“I believe it will sunset in June,” Makris said.
The tax was estimated to bring in about $3.5 million annually, and according to figures prepared by the corporation, that has been almost on target — from a low of $3.424 million in 2011-2012 to a high of $3.581 million in 2015-2016.
“We have $13.5 million in assets, and assuming that we don’t make any more payouts, we’re going to have about $15 million,” Makris said. “I don’t see an immediate need for us to stockpile money.”
He also said that since Pine Bluff voters approved the Go Forward plan earlier this year, “letting the tax sunset will give the voters a break, and I am confident that if we need it back, the voters will approve another tax.”
Makris said that since the tax was passed, the board committed to spending $4 million to the Energy Security Partners, which plans a natural gas-to-liquid fuel manufacturing facility in northern Jefferson County.
In addition to that project, the tax funds have been used to build a road and widen another for Highland Pellets, pay for trucks for L&R Distributors, which took over S.A.J. Distributors, fund refrigeration equipment for Summit Poultry, formerly Horizon Foods and fund expansions at Kiswire. Most recently, Western Foods, which will open a gluten-free flour mill in the Jefferson Industrial Park in the spring of 2018, received funds. With no dissent, the board voted not to seek renewal of the tax when it expires.
At the same meeting, Lou Ann Nisbett, president and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, said that this year, the Alliance dealt with more than 40 groups that were interested in owning and operating marijuana cultivation and dispensary facilities in Jefferson County.
The Medical Marijuana Commission received 13 applications for cultivation units in the county, one of the highest in the state. In addition, there are currently six options on property owned by the Alliance for potential marijuana cultivation facilities.