Leader Blues

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

TOP STORY>> Beebe rejects city expansion

IN SHORT: Only voters in Searcy were in an agreeable mood, approving a 1-cent sales tax for a new fire station and to retire old debt.

By Joan McCoy
Leader staff writer

Beebe said no Tuesday, by 36 votes, to a proposed annexation that would have doubled the size of the city, while Searcy residents voted yes to a nine-month, 1-cent sales tax to finance the new central fire station and help retire part of the city’s debt.
In Beebe, 382 people, or 52 percent, said no to the annexation, while 346, or 48 percent, said yes.

In Searcy, the vote was 550, or 55 percent, in favor of the tax and 469, or 45 percent, against it. In Beebe, both city residents and those living in the proposed annexation area were allowed to vote.

Not surprisingly, the residents in the area to be annexed voted against the plan 108 to 27. But the vote was close inside the city limits where the count from the polls was 310 for, 250 against.

Jason Scheel, chairman of the planning commission, which pushed for the annexation, said the low voter turnout was not unexpected and neither was the close vote since most votes in Beebe are close.

But Scheel said unsigned flyers that turned up in people’s yards over the weekend might have swayed some city residents to vote against the annexation.

One flyer depicted a stop sign and warned residents that their taxes would go up to support the “new Beebe.”

The annexation had been talked about since last year and actively pursued for about six months by the time the city council voted more than a month ago to go ahead with the election.

County residents who either opposed becoming Beebe residents or just wanted more information about what the city had to offer filled the council chambers for public meetings held by the planning commission and city council.

In the days leading up to the election, there was little visible evidence that the city was trying to expand except one homemade sign on Highway 64 in opposition to the annexation and a few yard signs inside the city telling residents the annexation was for their future.

The city campaigned for the annexation by placing brochures in local businesses.
Marjorie Armstrong, the city’s economic director, said a larger population would make it easier for her to promote the city to businesses looking for a place to locate.

The new Searcy tax will go into effect in October. It is expected to generate $3.3 million for Searcy. The money will be used to finance the construction of a new $1.6 million central fire station at the edge of downtown on the corner of Elm Street and Beebe-Capps Expressway.

The new station replaces the central fire station destroyed in a Jan. 27 blaze. The remainder of the money raised by the tax will be used to help retire $900,000 in city debt.

“It’s going to be good for the city,” said Mayor Belinda LaForce after the vote totals were released Tuesday evening.

But not all seemed happy.

“The majority of the people are disgusted about the tax and said they were voting against it because they just don’t know what it’s about,” said Bobby Quattlebaum, owner of Bobby’s Family Restaurant in downtown Searcy.

He added city officials did a poor job of educating the public about the temporary tax.
“During early voting at the court house there were signs up saying ‘Vote Here’ and I had people coming in asking what in the world was being voted on,” Quattlebaum said.
“I’ve had people say they wouldn’t vote for any tax and others said they would vote for it because it’s temporary and primarily for public safety,” said Alderman Dale Brewer, co-sponsor of the ordinance.

Responding to some of the criticism, the mayor said, “We feel like we’ve beat a dead horse to death. We discussed it at city council meetings for months. It’s a pretty simple issue and I think we took care of it.”

Fire Chief Bill Baldridge was one of the first people to vote Tuesday at Southside Elementary’s cafeteria, the city’s central polling location.

The central fire station has been operating from a temporary location on the corner of Higginson Street and Booth Road. According to Baldridge, the temporary location adds up to ten minutes to the fire department’s response time for fires downtown.

“Fire scenes change every sixty seconds so ten minutes is a lot of time,” Baldridge said.

In the meantime, construction on the new fire station at the corner of Elm Street and Beebe-Capps Expressway is moving ahead.

“The mayor has said the station will be built,” Baldridge said.

“Brooks Jackson Architects are surveying the lot and taking soil samples. They’re going to put in about three feet of fill dirt to build it up.”