Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

TOP STORY>> Cabot to vote on higher taxes for projects

IN SHORT: Public to decide in two months if higher mills should pay for community center, railroad overpass.

The Cabot City Council, meeting in special session Monday night, agreed to let voters decide if they’ll pay higher taxes to fund the community center and the railroad overpass on Polk Street.

Voters will be asked in less than two months to increase city millage from 3.5 to 4.5 and pass $2 million in bonds for both projects.

If passed, the increase would add about $20 to the tax on a $100,000 home.

Alderman Patrick Hutton was the only holdout to a unanimous voice vote to have City Attorney Ken Williams draft the ordinances that would be the ballot titles for the election.

During discussion about funding the two projects, Hutton talked about creating a priority list of city projects and fund them as cash becomes available.

He remained silent during the vote, saying neither “yea” nor “nay” when the mayor asked who was for or against the election.

Hutton said after the meeting that he thought if was important to present options to increasing city taxes.
“I just didn’t want it to be a rubber stamp,” he said.

Alderman David Polantz, who was shut out on every piece of legislation he tried to get before the council last month, carried the discussion on the proposed millage increase during the Monday night meeting. It was his idea, and he told the council he had worked several hours to provide the information they needed to know about the proposal.

The millage increase would bring in about $180,000 a year, according to Dale Walker, city finance director, more than enough to pay back 20-year-bonds for $2 million.

Polantz told the council that even though it is uncertain whether federal money that will pay for 80 percent of the railroad overpass will be available this year, it would be far worse for the money to be there and the city not have its 20 percent match of about $1 million.

The overpass is actually scheduled for 2008, but Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan, the agency in Little Rock that distributes federal highway dollars, says it is likely Little Rock will not be ready for some of its projects this year, so Cabot’s overpass could move ahead.

The city is short about $1.2 million on the bid construction price of $4.2 million for the new community center. The city has saved about $260,000 toward the overpass and Union Pacific has agreed to pay at least $75,000. So bonds of $2 million would allow both projects to begin this year.

The council agreed that the ballots also would say that the millage would be rolled back once the bonds are retired.

Construction was supposed to begin in January on a $3.5 million community center but when the bids were opened in December, the low bid, which did not include the already completed dirt work was $4.2 million.

The plans drawn by Taggart, Foster, Currence and Gray Architects, Inc., of Little Rock included a basketball gymnasium and a swimming pool. When the bids came in high, Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh told the architects to redesign it to cost less while retaining all the amenities voters approved almost two years ago. The architects made some changes, but not enough that the center could be built with available funds.

Polantz told the council Monday night that if voters turn down the millage increase, the council will have some hard decisions to make in June about paying for the overpass and community center.

Since safety is the driving force behind construction of the overpass, it should take priority over the community center, he said.

With more businesses coming to Cabot, the city sales tax will likely bring in about $200,000 more than anticipated this year, Polantz told the council. So the city could borrow the money for the overpass and pay it back within five years as state law now allows, he said.

The mayor agreed that was an option but said it would be difficult to pay back 600,000 in five years.
For about two months, Polantz has talked about increasing franchise fees for businesses like the electric companies and gas companies that do business in Cabot. Polantz proposes using the money to establish a city-owned and operated ambulance service.

The city attorney told the council that his research shows the gas company charges a franchise fee of $2 a year for each meter. Last year that amounted to $9,000 in the city coffers. But if the city increased that fee to 4.25 percent as allowed by state law, the gas company would have to pay the city about $200,000 a year.

The council made no decision about increasing franchise fees, which also would be a tax increase for city residents.

Hutton said such an increase might make it unnecessary to increase the city millage, but Polantz and other members of the council said franchise fees would not legally support a bond issue and neither would they be available in time to start the railroad overpass.