Leader Blues

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

TOP STORY>> Tax supporting Cabot projects on ballot again

IN SHORT: Proposal would raise $26 million for a new sewer plant, railroad overpass, community center, animal shelter and other projects, but if voters reject the tax, their sewer rates would more than double, officials say.

By Joan McCoy
Leader staff writer

A 5-3 vote of the Cabot City Council Monday night will give city residents the choice between more than doubling their sewer rates to pay for a new treatment plant or paying for that plant with an existing but temporary 1-cent tax that was is-sued to pay off water improvement bonds.

If voters donít approve extending the sales tax in an election tentatively set for Sept. 13, the council will raise sewer rates to pay for the new plant. Alderman Eddie Cook, who, along with Alderman Odis Waymack, co-sponsored the ordinance referring the tax extension to city voters, said after the council meeting that he hopes he is able to make that point clear to city voters in the weeks leading up to the election.

ďWe either extend the sales tax or we raise the rates. There are no other options,Ē he said.
Voting for the ordinance were aldermen Cook, Waymack, Tom Armstrong, James Glenn and Bob Duke.

Voting against it were aldermen David Polantz, Jerry Stephens and Patrick Hutton.

In addition to money for the sewer treatment plant, the ordinance also includes funding for several other city projects that might not be completed without extending the tax or will not be completed any time soon.

It includes $16.5 million for the sewer treatment plant and repairs to the collection system, $1.5 million for the community center that came in over budget, $200,000 to build an animal shelter at one time instead of in phases, $800,000 for the cityís part of a federally funded railroad overpass and $7 million to pay off the existing debt that is supported by the one-cent tax.

If voters donít approve extending the sales tax, the railroad overpass could still be built in 2008, when it was originally scheduled for construction.

But plans for the community center will die, officials say. The city has sold $3.5 million in bonds funded by existing city taxes to pay for the project, but the low bid for construction was $4.2 million. The city has three years from the time the bonds were sold to use the money or refund it, but without additional funding, the project canít progress past the $500,000 in dirt work that is already completed.

Polantz, who has voted against extending the sales tax every one of the three times it has come before the council in the past two months, defended his position by saying it was a matter of integrity. The council told voters in 1999 when they approved the tax that it would sunset when the water improvement bonds it supports are paid off.

He wanted to pay for the community center and overpass by increasing the city millage from 3.5 to 4.5, but city voters said no to that plan in last weekís election, which cost the city about $5,000.

ďSince Iíve been on the council, all Iíve heard about is unfunded projects, unfunded projects,Ē said Cook, who is in his first year on the council.

ďLetís complete all our projects, then letís put the burden back on the council and mayor to make sure we are frugal with the money so there are no more unfunded projects,Ē he said.

A public hearing on in-creasing sewer rates was held before the regular council meeting, and the council chamber was still so full during the regular meeting that people had to stand against the wall.

One of those standing was Bill Pedersen, a member of the Lonoke County Quorum Court, who addressed the council, saying people are tired of being taxed as evidenced by the election the week before.

Pedersen told the aldermen they should take off the community center and overpass because voters had clearly rejected them. Cook said the voters had only said they didnít want any new taxes.
Patty Webber disagreed with Peder-sen. The disappointment of the children who use the gym on Richie Road was palpable, she said, making the already hot gym seem even hotter.

Margie Webb told the council that a sales tax hurts poor people the most, and there was no guarantee extending the tax will hold sewer rates down.

But Janet Clinton said taxes will never go down anyway, so the council should give people the choice between paying for the new sewer plant with a rate increase or the existing tax.

Waymack, who is trying to limit his public support of paying for the plant with the tax, said that was all the council is really doing with its ordinance, putting the question to the voters and letting them decide.