Editor's Note: This is the 10th in a series of stories selected by the staff of The Commercial as the Top 10 local news stories of 2011.
Editor’s Note: This is the 10th in a series of stories selected by the staff of The Commercial as the Top 10 local news stories of 2011.
Voters got 2011 off to a newsworthy start by agreeing to shoulder an extra 1 percent in sales taxes in Pine Bluff and three-eighths of a cent in Jefferson County.
The two new taxes were passed in February and continued to make headlines throughout the year as their related projects got underway. The passage of the three-eighths cent county sales tax and the five-eighths cent city sales tax is The Commercial’s No. 1 top local news story of 2011.
After intense campaigning for the taxes by their supporters in fall and winter 2010, voters went to the polls in a special election on Feb. 8.
The county sales tax revenue will be used to raise money for economic development and to create a pool of money that can be used to provide incentives for companies that locate jobs in the county. Voters approved the tax by 67 percent.
On election night, Lou Ann Nisbett, president and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, called the margin “incredible.”
“I think it speaks highly of this community and their commitment to seeing things turn around,” Nisbett said. “It’s time for good news to come out of Jefferson County again, and the voters have made that possible.”
The city sales tax to provide more operating funds for the municipality and funding for a list of capital improvement projects was approved by 57 percent. Seven bond issues to provide financing for the capital projects were also on the ballot and passed by margins of 60 to 67 percent.
“We’re back in the game again,” Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. said on election night. “With this vote, the people said: ‘Let’s move forward. We’re ready to be competitive again like cities elsewhere in the state.’”
The bond issues were: $4 million for the Street Department; $5.6 million for the Parks and Recreation Department and the building of a new multipurpose community center; $6 million for the Fire Department; $1.7 million for the Police Department; $1.2 million to build a new animal shelter; $930,000 for the sewer system; and $2.3 million for the drainage system.
The approval of both the city and county taxes brought the sales tax rate up to 9.25 percent in Pine Bluff, 7.625 percent in the county and 8.625 percent in White Hall, Altheimer, Humphrey, Redfield, Sherrill and Wabbaseka.
Collections for both taxes began on July 1. The county and the city began to actually receive the tax monies in September.
The city issued the first group of bonds in October and has three years from that date to complete the first group of projects, which total $9 million and include equipment and projects for the fire, police, street and parks departments.
The fire department projects total $5.1 million and include the purchase of three fire engines, hazardous-materials and search-and-rescue equipment and emergency operations tools and equipment to outfit the new fire engines. The bond issues also enable the department to remodel Station No. 6 and Station No. 2 and replace or relocate Station No. 3.
The police department projects total $1.5 million and include remodeling a building to serve as a centralized patrol facility and purchasing seven police vehicles.
The street department projects total $1.4 million and include $1.3 million in equipment and $140,000 for city matches for signal and bridge projects.
The parks and recreation department projects total $959,715 and include building a splash park, improving lighting at the three baseball fields at Townsend Park, constructing a combination restroom and concession stand at Townsend Park, constructing restrooms at Martin Luther King Jr. Park and purchasing several pieces of equipment.
In November, the city council hired ETC Engineers and Architects of Little Rock to serve as a project manager for the bond-funded projects.
And in December, city officials met with ETC Engineers representatives for the first time to outline a game plan for how to move forward with the first group of projects. ETC is expected to present its recommendations to city officials at a followup meeting in February.
A total of $21.73 million in bond issue projects were approved by voters. Bonds will be issued for the remaining projects in upcoming years. Some of the projects, especially big ones like the planned multipurpose recreational facility with indoor swimming pool, will require the city to raise more money and pursue grant funding to supplement the total cost. Similarly, bonds for a new animal shelter were not part of the first group but are planned to be issued in upcoming years.
The county economic development tax will sunset in seven years unless it is re-approved by voters.
Its funds are overseen by a seven-member independent public corporation, whose members are appointed by the county judge and confirmed by the Jefferson County Quorum Court. Four members are from Pine Bluff and three are from other areas of the county.
The Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County first met in July, when they voted to elect George Makris as president. In addition, Jimmie Don McKissack, Glen Barnes Sr., Eugene Hunt, Scott McGeorge, James “Jitters” Morgan and Kaleybra Morehead make up the board.
The group will decide whether to provide a company that brings jobs to the county with incentives and if so, what kind. They have not yet had such a proposal before them for consideration.
In September, the board voted to hire the Alliance to perform the technical services related to the tax for a one-year contract of $490,000 or 15 percent of the tax receipts, whichever is less.
The tax is projected to bring in an estimated $3.5 million a year. At its most recent meeting in December, board members learned that the tax brought in $868,688 in its first three months, putting it close to projections.