Walnut Ridge looking at refunding $240,000 to residents

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WALNUT RIDGE, Ark. – If you have lived in Walnut Ridge in the past three years, you are probably about to get back over $100.

In an effort to keep the city legal, the mayor is asking the city council to repeal a fire protection fee and he’s also looking at plans to reimburse what may have been an unauthorized tax.

This comes after Jonesboro attorney Mark Rees filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the mayor’s office late Wednesday, requesting information about a fire protection “tax” as Rees believed it was functioning as.

As soon as they got the request, Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp said he and his staff, including the city attorney, were reviewing and compiling documents related to the fee residents and businesses have been paying in Walnut Ridge. Snapp said the fee makes up part of the budget paying firemen for the town. He said it has allowed the City of Walnut Ridge to maintain a low fire rating, which saves on insurance costs.

“That low rating even benefits adjoining towns and communities, but I am asking the Walnut Ridge City Council to repeal Ordinance 507 (approved January 6, 1987) at Monday night’s city council meeting, using the emergency clause,” Snapp wrote in an email to council members and the media Thursday.

Despite whatever fire protection rating the city has, Rees told NEA Report Friday it appeared this was an unauthorized fee being levied onto the residents of Walnut Ridge. Without there ever being a public vote on the “tax” as he described, Rees said it was no different than government simply making up the rules as they went. However, he did commend Snapp’s reasonable response as the appropriate way for a local government to respond to mistakes. 

Repealing Ordinance 507 will eliminate the $2.50 monthly fee on commercial buildings and a $3.00 fee for residential water bills and varying fees on industrial water bills.

That amounts to about $80,000 per year.

Walnut Ridge City Attorney Nancy Hall said she reviewed the ordinance in question and almost immediately realized there was an issue.

“There then was an obvious issue in that the line item being referred to as a ‘fee’ is for services already provided by the City,” Hall said. “An additional charge to residents without the vote of the public could be considered a ‘tax’ and not a ‘fee.’ Therefore, I contacted the Mayor and within a half hour, there was a call ceasing the addition of any fees to water bills for the purpose of supplementing the fire department.”

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Fire protection fees on the back of a City Water Works bill in Walnut Ridge

Snapp has been contacted about errors in local laws before, he said, but this was unique.

“This is not the first ordinance my administration has found fault with and it’s not the first one this city council will have had the opportunity to correct,” Snapp wrote. “However, I do believe Ordinance 507 is the first ordinance we have found possible flaw with that has involved fees to residents.”

Because of statute of limitation laws, the city is only liable to repay the past three years of unauthorized fees. This totals $240,000, roughly, or about $108 per resident, Snapp said Friday.

“Personally, I won’t take the refund,” Snapp said. “I’m going to support the fire department but we have to figure out how to support them and make sure it’s done legal.
This isn’t the first ordinance we’ve overturned since I’ve been in here with errors. It probably won’t be the last.”

But Snapp added this is the first ordinance involving fees and to him, it represented an urgent matter.

There is also other language in the ordinance, pertaining to charging fees for businesses based on their names. Snapp said it appeared this was also illegal.

“Let’s take no chance on it, eliminate it and offer a refund,” Snapp said. “That’s the right thing to do and I’m going to tell you, there’s no better time to do the right thing than right now.”

The funds are crucial to the fire department and Snapp is already considering other options for replacing the now 15 to 20-percent hole in the fire budget. He said the council could impose up to a 5 mill property tax increase or the city could ask the residents to vote and authorize the fire protection fee.

“We have an ISO fire rating of three,” Snapp said. “That helps everybody around us. I want to support the fire department but the right thing to do is bite the bullet, offer the people a full refund, repeal the ordinance, and problem solved.”

The Walnut Ridge City Council will decide on repealing the ordinance Monday night.

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