There was a sense of relief among Hempstead County officials Tuesday night as the final votes were counted and it became clear that the county’s residents approved the proposed 1% county-wide sales and use tax to fund the remodeling of the new courthouse and the scuttling of the current one.
District 7 Justice of the Peace Steve Atchley said he was very appreciative of everyone who participated in the series of town hall meetings leading up to the vote and who voted Tuesday, whether they supported the tax or not.
The 1% tax was put on the ballot in the special election to provide extra revenues to overcome the shortfall the county was facing in cash to move forward with the remodeling of the former Farmers Bank building in downtown Hope, which the county previously purchased. The county has around $1.3 million in reserve for the project but once the bids were in, the county was looking at a project cost of almost $3 million.
The county passed an ordinance in late 2019 to propose the sales tax and found themselves against the clock in an attempt to get a special election scheduled for the Super Tuesday primary on March 3. In the process, final language set to appear on the ballot added to the reticence felt among Hempstead County residences. The language seemed to leave open the option for funds from the tax to go into the county general fund where it could be put toward anything the Quorum Court decided, courthouse related or not. The issue was addressed at several of the town halls held by county officials. Along with their assurances that the county would not use the money for anything but the remodeling of the new courthouse and the removal of the current one, the Quorum Court passed an ordinance clarifying how the money raised from the two-year tax can be spent.
In the end, the courthouse tax passed by an almost 10% margin with 1439 votes cast in favor and 1204 cast against it.
Following the vote, Judge Jerry Crane said they intend to hit the ground running Wednesday morning. Judge Crane said architects would be contacted first thing and the bid process would be reopened, since the time window for the previous bids had expired. Judge Crane said that once the bid process is completed, they plan to have work started immediately. Though the tax won’t go into effect until the start of the third quarter, Judge Crane said the $1.3 million available for the project will allow work to start as soon as legally possible.
Judge Crane said they had been given an estimated timeline previously of around 9 months from the start of construction until they can move into the new location, but they hope to get their employees out of the current courthouse as soon as possible. Judge Crane said that the issues with asbestos and black mold in the building has been a hazard to county employees for too long and they can’t get them out of it soon enough.
Judge Crane said he is thankful to the voters of Hempstead County for supporting the temporary tax. He acknowledged that no one is happy about having to pay an extra tax but with it being a sales tax, at least the county residents will have help from travelers coming through on the interstate who stop for food, fuel or a night’s rest.
Though it was the main focus, the Courthouse Tax wasn’t the only thing on the ballot during Tuesday’s primary. Voters also made decisions on school millages, school board members, judicial positions and Presidential nominees. Though they voted for candidates in other positions including legislative positions on the county, state and federal level, all those candidates ran unopposed on their party’s tickets.
Voters approved millage taxes for their school districts in Hope, Blevins and Nashville but Mineral Springs School District voters voted down their millage. Voters also elected Tem Gunter to the Nashville School Board Zone 2 by a final vote of 88-60 over Misty Wilson.
In the judicial votes, Hempstead County voters supported Barbara Womack Webb for State Supreme Court Associate Justice Position 4, over Morgan “Chip” Welch in a final vote of 1566-1034. Webb won the position with a final statewide vote of 244,145 to 211,399 votes for Welch.
Stephanie Potter Barrett won the support of Hempstead County voters for the position of Court of Appeals Associate Judge, Position 2 for District 4 with a final vote of 1447 to 1151 for Emily White. Barrett won the position with a total vote within District 4 of 41,883 to White’s 32,215.
As for President, Hempstead County closely mirrored the choice of the rest of the State of Arkansas. Hempstead County Republican voters supported Donald Trump by 98.35%. Statewide, Trump received 97.11% support on the Republican ticket. Former Vice President Joe Biden received 55.58% of the vote from Hempstead County Democrats with no one else very close behind. Bernie Sanders received only 12.98% and Michael Bloomburg received 15.11% of the vote. Statewide, Biden won with 40.56% of the vote on the Democrat ballot with Sanders receiving 22.36% and Bloomburg receiving 16.71%.