Special Meeting Held to put Tax on Ballot to Finance Courthouse Renovation

The Hempstead County Quorum Court held a special meeting at the new Courthouse building Monday morning to vote on two ordinances meant to move forward with the completion of renovations to the former Farmers Bank building to serve as the new location of the Hempstead County Courthouse. The first ordinance would create a 2-year, 1% sales tax to finance the additional construction costs over the $1.3 million the county has on hand for the project and the second ordinance would set a special election during the primary election on March 3, 2020 so voters could vote to approve or refuse the sales tax. Both ordinances were passed unanimously by the J.P.’s in attendance.

After heated discussion about the subject during the November Quorum Court meeting, Judge Jerry Crane said, the members of the county governing body spoke to Hempstead County citizens and came to the conclusion that the community wants the Quorum Court to get moving on the completion of the courthouse. Ordinances 2019-21 and 2019-22 were drawn up and the special meeting set so that, if passed, the County Clerk’s Office can get the necessary paperwork in to the state by the Thursday deadline to get the tax put on the 2020 Primary Election ballots.

J.P. Steve Atchley said that the previous Quorum Court pulled the trigger on purchasing the courthouse and the project has stalled over the last several months due to the bid for remodeling, which is $2.77 million, was $1.47 million more that the county has set aside for the project. Atchley said it’s time the county gets rolling on completing the project.

The 1% sales tax was the first ordinance discussed and voted on. The ordinance calls for a 24 month “sunset” tax that will go getting the courthouse finished. The funds, which will go exclusively to the county, will be collected and go into the County General Fund to fund the general purposes of the county government.

All present members of the Quorum Court (Only J.P. Clayton and J.P. Doris Brown were not at the meeting. J.P. was not present but participated in the meeting via phone.) voted to approve the temporary tax, which will not go into effect unless approved by Hempstead County voters.

The second ordinance was also passed unanimously and set the special election for March 3, 2020, during the 2020 Primary Election. The ordinance will appear on all three ballots according to County Clerk Karen Smith. This will put the County’s plan to get the courthouse complete and get the County employees out of the current building, which is reportedly causing health problems due to its condition, in the voters’ hands.

If the 1% sales tax is approved, Prosecuting Attorney Christi McQueen said, the tax will go into effect on July 1, 2020 and expire June 30, 2022. McQueen’s Deputy Jim Burke looked into it and reported to the Court that, according to Arkansas law, the tax would have to be implemented at the beginning of a quarter and the quarter starting in July is the earliest quarter available following the vote and the red tape the implementation must go through.

Atchley said that with the money the county already has on hand for the courthouse project, which is expected to take about 9 months to complete, the county would be able to move forward with the construction once voters approve the tax and allow time for the tax to raise revenue to begin to cover the remaining costs.

This option would allow the courthouse to be completed without borrowing the extra money that is needed, which many J.P.’s expressed a strong desire to avoid. Though, if voters vote down the tax, the option will be back on the table, along with any others the county government can come up with.

The Quorum Court will hold its regular monthly meeting for December on Thursday, November 19 and will be voting on the final budget for the county for 2020.

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