Like many readers of the Log Cabin Democrat, I’m angry about the recent election to raise the sales tax in Conway. The residents of Conway should never have had to choose between higher taxes and broken roads. The question is, how did we get here, and what can we do to prevent this from happening again?
An article from the April 2017 issue of City and Town magazine states that the city had "$5 million dollars a year in projected maintenance needs and only $1 million in the pavement maintenance budget." Further, in an article in this paper on November 8, Mayor Castleberry noted that he had been "researching with the department heads ways we could lessen the strain on the general fund and thus put more dollars to street maintenance."
Ultimately, the city decided that the sales tax increase was the best option. The mayor continued "we have an estimated need to our existing streets of over $45 million dollar and an annual budget of $1.4 million to make repairs."
It should be immediately obvious to everyone that this is not sustainable, and worse, that the ‘temporary’ tax that just passed cannot possibly be temporary, if each year our annual costs are larger than our annual intake. So how did we get such an upside-down budget?
City council member David Grimes, in a Facebook post supporting the passage of the tax, noted that "10-15 years ago, the biggest traffic problem was getting across town," and therefore "the city made a conscious decision to spend most of our limited street funds on improving traffic flow. This was done by building new roads, expanding existing roads, and adding roundabouts. …"
Since clearly once we build something we need to maintain it, you might expect that expanding the road would include an expansion in the maintenance budget. But that does not seem to have occurred.
Another, less obvious culprit is the Conway Public School district. As many of you know, the newest schools are all quite far from downtown Conway. The school district buys land where it is cheapest. However, once a new school is built, quite naturally, people want to live near it. As a result, the city has to build new roads to dozens of new developments, in addition to needing to improve traffic flow around the new school. Woodrow Cummins, for example, is 6 miles from city hall. Ruth Doyle is 5. Florence Mattison is 3, in the exact opposite direction from the other two. In building so far from the city center, the district has encouraged the city to sprawl, and in doing so forced the city to build a much bigger road network than it might otherwise have needed to build.
So what can we do about all this? There are a few things. The first is to pay attention to what the city council and school district are doing. Go to the meetings, read the minutes, whatever you can do. The second is to make them aware that we’re paying attention. When you see a new road being built, send a letter or email asking if they’ve set aside money to maintain that road.
We shouldn’t have to do that, but the evidence points to a need for more citizen oversight.
The same should be done with the school district. Let them know you don’t want to pay more taxes so they can build a school in the middle of nowhere. Just like the city, we need to hold them accountable for choices made now, so we don’t end up paying for them later.
I’m looking forward to having nice new roads, and smoothly flowing traffic. But I would also like to have a city, and a school district, that makes good choices and plans for the future in a responsible way.
David Barber has lived in Conway since 2008. He is a local educator, teaching business and economics.