JONESBORO, Ark. – The only Jonesboro councilman who voted against the special election for a one percent sales tax announced his idea for a smaller tax exactly one week before early voting began.
Bobby Long, who is also running for State Representative in a Republican primary, floated his idea on a radio program Tuesday morning in Jonesboro. The idea, later sent in a press release to KAIT and The Sun, would be a smaller tax – 1/4 cent – which would exclusively go to police and fire needs.
“Many want to support the fire and police, but would not support funding amenities at this time. However, the ordinance to be voted on September 10th does not allow for that to happen,” Long wrote in a press release he neglected to send us.
This would be half of the amount police and fire received under Team Jonesboro’s initiative. Questions, by default, were if it would be sufficient for the Jonesboro police and fire departments. NEA Report contacted Chief Rick Elliott on Tuesday afternoon. Elliott said he had never once been consulted by Long during the formation of the last-minute idea.
Neither had Fire Chief Kevin Miller, who told The Jonesboro Sun he wasn’t certain it would even raise enough money for the needs. He said his department needs to add two fire stations and hire additional firefighters to catch up with the population growth.
While some reports called it an alternative tax plan, it was not clear how much planning actually went into it.
NEA Report reached out to Long. The phone call rang several times and went to his voicemail. We left a message but he did not return our call or text.
JPD Chief’s Take
Chief of Police Rick Elliott spoke to NEA Report again, on Wednesday. He said he first learned of the idea after Long was on a morning radio show the day before. His first thought, he said, was that a quarter-cent would not be enough to meet his needs. His second was that he wished Councilman Long had reached out and sat down with police so they could learn what “he’s trying to accomplish here.”
“Personally, I don’t appreciate public safety being used as a political pawn on this,” Elliott said.
The chief said the announcement comes on the eve of an election and only causes confusion. He said it does nothing to address the comprehensive approach he believes the city must take for the future. Elliott said quality of life is just as important as expanding police presence for the long-term health of the community. He said people want to live in a good city with varieties of opportunity for recreation and entertainment while, at the same time, feeling safe.
The chief, a vocal Team Jonesboro supporter, said the citizen-led initiative was worked on for years with tireless effort, thought, and resources going into it. He also pointed out the oversight council, who will be responsible for the transparency of funds.
“The way this is laid out, I can plan for our department and hire for the future,” Elliott said. “These are capital improvement projects, besides staffing, that we’re trying to get built and paid for.”
Elliott hopes to get JPD into one single structure. The current arrangement is three buildings forcing officers to travel between locations and in the chief’s words, taking away from their time on the street.
“It’s just not as efficient as it could be or should be,” Elliott said. “Besides, we’ve got aging structures down on Washington that need a lot of repairs and one of them needs to be taken down. I don’t want to keep pouring money into something we’re going to have to bailout anyway. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right so that it’ll sustain this department for the next 30 years – and probably longer than that.”
Scott McDaniel is the chairman of Team Jonesboro and has been one of the strongest voices in favor of the movement. He said Long has served on the council since 2016 and has had plenty of time to propose an ordinance addressing public safety funding – but he never did until now.
“If he was sincere he would have done this earlier,” McDaniel said. “The reality is this: he is trying to confuse the voters, I believe. Even if he is sincere, and I don’t believe he is, gives them half the money they need and does nothing for quality of life. At the best case, it’s a bad ordinance. And worst case, he is insincere and trying to disrupt the election process. And based on how long he’s had to do something, I’m pretty sure that’s what his goal was.”
It was clear in the tone of his voice McDaniel was frustrated by the situation. He has become passionately invested in the movement. However, he said his intention has been and remains to be positive.
“Our intention is to run a positive campaign,” said McDaniel. “We regret that Mr. Long has chosen to do this but we think our idea is the only real idea to make Jonesboro safer and to make Jonesboro a better place to live.”
District 53 House Race
More than a few NEA Report spoke with suggested the announcement was politically motivated. A three-way Republican primary for State Representative Dan Sullivan’s seat in the Arkansas House is happening between Long, Dr. Cole Peck, and Lake City Mayor Jon Milligan. Proposing a lower tax could be a way for a candidate to appeal to voters more likely to be predisposed against taxes altogether. It is a question we had hoped to ask Long.
Dr. Peck said he felt like the process should have been completed before a new proposal was submitted last minute.
“There is an election already planned,” Peck said. “Democracy is at work. Team Jonesboro is a grassroots movement. Whether you disagree or agree, one has to respect their motivation and good intentions to make Jonesboro a better place. I believe we need to let the people’s voice be heard for or against the current measure first, before introducing a new proposal at the 11th hour.”
Milligan said he understood potential needs for police and fire funding. He described the challenge of keeping ISO ratings down for a community, something he knows about as a mayor. He stayed neutral, however, saying he believed Jonesboro residents would do the right thing.
“If it doesn’t pass and something needs to be done with police and fire, and you bring all the players to the table, I trust the citizens to make the right decision,” Milligan said.
Jonesboro’s sales tax rate is 8.5-percent. Only one-percent of that goes to the city, another one-percent to the county, and the rest to the state. If Team Jonesboro’s proposal passes, the tax will go up to 9.5-percent. It would still be lower than most other communities in the area.
By comparison, according to Avalara.com, here are some other area tax rates:
- Walnut Ridge – 11%
- Paragould – 9%
- Trumann – 9.75%
- Pocahontas – 9.75%
- West Memphis – 10.75%
- Blytheville – 10.5%
By comparison to larger communities in Arkansas of similar size, here are the current tax rates for:
- Little Rock – 9%
- Fort Smith – 9.75%
- Fayetteville – 9.75%
- Springdale – 9.75%
- Jonesboro – 8.50%
- North Little Rock – 9.50%
- Conway – 9.125%
- Rogers – 9.50%
- Pine Bluff – 10%
- Bentonville – 9.50%
Early voting begins September 3. Election day is September 10.