With nearly 66 percent of voters supporting all four measures of the tax rededication during the recent election, the focus now shifts to the Conway City Council, who will determine where the money raised from the quarter-cent tax will go.
Before the election, Conway Mayor Tab Townsell and the council laid out a plan to divide the quarter cent, which has been funding city projects since 1988, into two areas, one of which would add $1.5 million annually to the general fund, and the other, which would be dedicated to police, fire and sanitation needs.
While the money from the tax would not immediately be available, the council would purchase bonds as soon as possible to finish paying off debt from the police station construction, to modernize the fire department with the purchase of five new trucks and new digital radios, and to purchase new trucks for the sanitation department.
"There will be some money that will be available up front, but the rest of the money will come in slowly," Townsell said on election night. "I want to thank those who supported this and have placed their trust with this council to do what is right and to get us out of the financial crisis that we were in."
The council’s next move will be to commit to buying the bonds and making the purchases for the departments and create a true general reserve fund, which will add an extra $2 million by 2016.
In May 2011, a special election was held for tax rededication which would have funded the general fund as well as salaries for city employees. That election failed with a little more than 1,000 people voting. The current election, with more promotion and more explanation to the use of the money, brought in twice as many voters and a different outcome. But the commitments in the latest rededication package contains nothing about salaries. The council instead has pledged to commit money to the general fund for a one-time bonus for city employees.
The city has estimated that about $1.5 million per year will be generated by the one-eighth cent portion of the tax, and the city will not begin to see the 2012 portion of that until March, which means that by the end of the year, the city should expect about $1 million, half of which is reserved for the general reserve fund. That could possibly leave $500,000 for the employee bonus, but Townsell pointed out during a town hall meeting on the election, that anything regarding that portion of the rededication would have to be addressed toward the end of the year.
Dealing with employee salaries, especially those in the police and fire departments, will have to come from another source, at least in the near future.
No new positions have been available to the police and fire departments, and no raises have been issued for the past three years. The Fraternal Order of Police supported the tax rededication, but some have worried about turnover within the department as Little Rock has increased taxes to support more and higher paid police officers. No official support or dissent came from the Conway Fire Department. Turnover within the fire department has been the highest during Fire Chief Bart Castleberry’s tenure, and the average fire fighter makes approximately $20,000 more in Little Rock than in Conway.
A committee within the council is currently working on ways to increase city employee salaries, and a report could be expected later this year. "We are going to be checking with Little Rock and adjust to them," Townsell said. "We are definitely going to be focused on that this year."