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What you need to know before voting on extending the sales tax in February

Updated: Jan 28


Signage on Ouachita

You've likely seen the red white and blue "OUR ROADS NOW: Vote 'FOR' Feb. 8" signs decorating the town. The Hot Springs Post has spoken with both proponents and opponents of the tax, and we're here to tell you what you need to know before getting out to vote in this special election Feb. 1-8.


The five-eighth cent sales tax was first implemented in 2016. Its use has been intended to fix the condition of city and county roads and bridges — an issue both sides agree has been evident for years.


The current tax is sunsetting after paying off 14 months early. Now the community faces a special election with the decision to vote to extend or diminish the sales tax costing 62 and a half cents per every $100 spent in Garland County.


If extended, the tax is expected to make $70 million for road and bridge repairs. This will be divided into about $42 million for the county, $25 million for the city and the remainder for Fountain Lake and Mountain Pine.


"If you ask me if I think we need to spend more money on our roads, and we need to maintain them and repair some bridges, I will 100% agree with you," George Pritchett, with the Garland County Tea Party and who is an opponent of the tax, said. "And I wouldn't necessarily be opposing this as I am, nor would the Tea Party, nor would the Garland County Tax Alliance ... if it were on a primary or general election ballot where there's a good turnout. Turnouts for special election ballots are as low as 10 and 12 percent.


"... Our number one objection for this tax is it's on a special election ballot. Special election ballots are normally referred to friends and family elections because they are. They're generally not well advertised, not well promoted. ... If it's put on a special election ballot more than half succeed. If it's put on a primary election ballot, or a general election ballot, only less than half succeed. Now there are obviously exceptions. But that's the way it works, that's why they're called friends and family elections."


And while Garland County Election Commission Chairman Gene Haley said yes, typically only 8-12% of people come out for special elections, County Judge Darryl Mahoney said the issue was placed on a special election ballot for two reasons.


Number one, the date for the special election had already been set aside for some millage votes, so they used it to add on their issue.


Number two, since the bond is paying off early, the special election is needed in order to make the funding continuous. If the funding is not continuous, the tax has to stop and businesses have to redo their registers, just to have them redone again if it's once again passed in a general election. Also, if the tax temporarily stops, it could halt construction.


"The biggest thing is there’s a sense of urgency with some bridges that need engineering," Mahoney said, specifically naming bridges on Warwick and Gum Springs Roads.


Additionally, Chris Polychron, with the "Our Roads Now" committee and who is a proponent of the tax, said their committee has held 12-14 public forums thus far, and currently have a list of 37.


"Anything you can think of, we’ve asked if we can come speak to them," Polychron said.


The bottom line from all three of the parties above? Go vote.


Early voting will be held Feb. 1-4 and 7 from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. Election day is Feb. 8 from 7:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Election locations can be found here. Sample ballots can be found here.


But first, check out this additional input from Pritchett and Polychron.


Pritchett describes the extension of the tax a "temporary solution at best." He recommends going back to the drawing board.


"The solution for them isn't to go back and glean from their budgets some money from other things and make sure that we properly prioritize our streets, bridges, roads," Pritchett said. "Unfortunately it's just never a priority. There's nothing exciting, there's nothing attractive, there's nothing significant about maintaining your infrastructure, until your infrastructure's failing.


"I recommend, the Tea Party recommends, the Good Garland Government Group, and the Tax Alliance recommends they go back to the drawing board and come up with a permanent solution. The reason we do this is because 1, we don't like the special election that ... doesn't take into consideration of all the citizens because it just won't be a good turnout. But more importantly what's happened here is we don't have a permanent plan because even what they're proposing, and their own group will tell you ... at the end of this five-year period and additional $70 million, that they're still going to be ... short of their need."


Even with not all the roads and bridges repaired by the end of the five years, Polychron thinks the roads, which will be repaired starting with those in the worse condition, will be noticeably better.


"It’s not just throwing asphalt," he said. "In most cases it’s going to be starting with a base because if you just fill a pothole … the patch just pops out, then it’s a true pothole. So they’re going to fix roads, they’re not just going to patch roads.

"... And selfishly, as a realtor, when I show property you’d be surprised how many people comment on the poor roads. So I mean from a business standpoint I certainly think it helps Hot Springs as well. But, you know, if it was a new tax I probably wouldn’t be voting for it, but it’s not a new tax, it’s a continuation."

"I think if we don’t do this and wait," Polychron said, "we’re going to regret it, because it’s going to put us farther behind, and it’s going to take longer to catch-up. The roads aren’t getting any better everyday."


But Pritchett's fears lie in the fact there could be another, more suitable solution to fix the problem.


"Go back and glean our budgets and look what's in there where we can maybe find some money," he said. "... We can't keep going to the people because the people who are proposing these taxes are the people it doesn't bother, but the people that have to pay them ... tax increases always hurt the most to people who can least afford them.


"... But if we're going to do it we need to come up with a longterm program, and we have to budget that, then we have to take that to the people and see if the people will agree. Then we also have to, our elected officials have to work harder and commit to budgeting what it takes to maintain. Once we fix them, if we don't budget enough to maintain them we'll come right back to where we are in 10 years."


Update


The Friday before early voting begins for the special election, opposition signs went up around the town.