As Hempstead County officials held their third in a series of meetings designed to inform citizens about their proposed 1 cent sales tax in Hempstead County, SWARK.Today was on scene to record for those unable to attend the meeting, as we work to deliver you fair and unbiased reporting.
WATCH the full video above. The meeting was at 6:00 P.M. on January 30, 2020 at the Spring Hill School Cafeteria.
The Story So Far
The proposed 1 cent sales tax for two years is expected to generate almost $6 million dollars for the County. Courthouse officials have claimed that this sales tax would be used to remodel the old Farmers Bank and Trust building in downtown Hope (built in 2003) which was purchased by the County for $1.5 million in 2017. If passed, Hempstead County’s sales tax rate would be the highest in southwest Arkansas.
The Quorum Court held a special meeting in November of 2019 to decide whether to call a sales tax election to be held March 3, 2020. The special meeting came after rumors of and ultimately statements by Pafford EMS, a local ambulance company headquartered in Hope that employs 1,100 people across four states and 120 employees in Hempstead and Howard counties, expressed interest in leasing or buying the old Farmers Bank as is for what the County has in it, and would use that space to fulfill Pafford’s growing corporate and billing offices.
In 2017, the County initially estimated the cost of remodel to be $1.7 million. Now, numbers vary on what the remodel will actually cost. The Texarkana Gazette reported that Justice Ed Darling, who is the Chairman of the Hempstead county Quorum Court’s Finance Committee said the remodel would be between $4.5 million to $5.7 million. While HopePrescott.com reported that Justice James Griffin said the remodel would be $2.7 million. The University of Arkansas Public Policy Center has stated that the renovations would cost “at least $3 million.” According to Hempstead County Judge Jerry Crane, the best estimate we have now is $3 million to remodel the Farmers building.
With no clear bids or quotes, there is no “official” understanding as to how much the remodel will cost. If the remodel does come in at less than the amount of funds raised, the extra funds will be used towards the old courthouse, according to Crane. However, there is no official plan as to what to do with the existing courthouse.
Despite promises by officials to the contrary, the tax funds will not be legally earmarked for the remodel of the former Farmers Bank building in Downtown Hope which was purchased by the County for $1.5 million in 2017. The ordinance calling the election which was passed by the Quorum Court provides that the funds are to be spent on “general purposes of County government” with no limitations on how the money can be spent. Although many Quorum Court members have stated that this money is for the remodel of the new courthouse, the ballot (which actually could place that restriction on the tax money like it did in the Hempstead Hall sales tax election) is silent regarding any limitations. In fact, the two Ordinances which were approved by the Quorum Court do not even contain the word “Courthouse.” You can read the full text of the two Ordinances which are attached to this article as a PDF. According to Hempstead County Judge Jerry Crane, the Quorum Court is planning to pass an ordinance to retroactively restrict the funds towards the new courthouse and the old courthouse. However, any ordinance done by the Quorum Court, can be undone by the Quorum Court.
Faced with a renovation with costs expected to reach almost $3 million the County has to have some sort of raised tax to finance the remodel. No county official has publicly stated why the remodel costs are so different from the original figure or why the initial estimate of moving into the Courthouse in the Summer of 2018 was not met.
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research & Extension Public Policy Center has prepared a “Fact Sheet” for the sales tax election which you can access here.Ordinances-21-22-1-Sales-Use-TaxDownload