VILONIA — Aldermen have given Mayor James Firestone the green light to draft a resolution opposing a proposed increase in the state’s natural gas severance tax.
A tax hike would leave Arkansas with one of the highest rates in the country, making it difficult to compete with surrounding states for jobs and economic development, the mayor said.
"We need to support the gas business," Firestone said. "We don’t want them going somewhere else."
The city of Vilonia and Faulkner County have benefited greatly from the natural gas industry the past few years, the mayor said. He said this area has not been as adversely impacted by the "severe recession" that has gripped other parts of the country.
"We haven’t felt it here like some other places because of the natural gas business," Firestone said. "We are fortunate they came here when they did. If we try to raise the severance tax, they may go somewhere else and we don’t want that."
Alderman Jim King said of the gas industry: "We don’t want to hinder what they are doing. A lot of good people around here would stand the chance of losing good jobs."
Aldermen indicated during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting that the council will adopt the resolution at its May meeting.
The council’s move is in response to efforts by Sheffield Nelson, a former gas executive, to place the rate issue on the November general election ballot.
Nelson has until July 6, to gather signatures to qualify the referendum for the general election. He proposes raising the severance tax from 5 percent to 7 percent. He has estimated that the severance tax increase would generate about $250 million annually.
In other council business:
• Brian Presley was reappointed to a third term on the city water board representing District 4.
• The council approved an ordinance annexing 277 acres belonging to residents Charlie Weaver and Carolyn Fraizer. City officials said the land is along Mt. Olive Road South extending to the city bypass. The tract is mostly farm land but includes two houses. The property also includes land where the new Vilonia Intermediate School will be built.
• The council approved an ordinance rezoning 4.5 acres belonging to Howard Smith and 3.6 acres owned by Carolyn McNeil from residential to mixed highway use. The land is on Rocky Point Road extending to the city bypass. Aldermen heard the following reports:
• The Planning Commission will not meet this month because of a lack of agenda items, Fred Fowlkes, city engineer/code enforcement officer, said. Thirteen building inspections have been completed and five building permits have been issued in the past month, including two residential, one residential addition and two commercial. The commercial permit included a dual purpose safe room at the high school and a Big Red convenience story/McDonalds facility on Highway 64, with a roadway connecting to Fred’s. Fowlkes said the project is on a "fast track" with land being readied. The McDonalds restaurant will feature 3,200 square feet of floor space, seating for 50 and two drive-through windows, he said. The Big Red will contain 2,500 square feet of floor space and feature a single-bay car wash.
• The police department’s new Dodge Charger has been equipped and is in operation.
• Some tickets remain for the Vilonia Area Chamber of Commerce banquet at 6 p.m. Saturday. Firestone said 11 awards will be presented and the theme will deal with the recovery from last year’s tornado. Tom Courtway, president of the University of Central Arkansas, will be the keynote speaker.
• Firestone said he received a letter from Greg Lewis of the Vilonia Sports Association concerning growth issues at the city park. Lewis is asking the council to look for property to expand the park. "We have been looking," Firestone said, "but so far we have nothing to bring back to the council."
• Alderman Art Pisces said about $6,000 was raised for the senior citizens center during the recent Dominoes/Skip Bo/Rook tournament.