Wednesday, June 25, 2014

TOP STORY >> Sherwood library vote in fall

Leader staff writer

A favorable opinion from the state Attorney General’s office was the impetus needed for the Sherwood council to move forward Monday night and vote to place the library tax issue on the November general ballot.

According to the ordinance, the new library would be constructed and equipped through a 1.3-mill increase, roughly $200 per year for the owner of a $150,000 home.

The cost to purchase the land, build the facility, equip and stock it could run near $6 million.

The ordinance, which was first brought up at the April council meeting, called for a special election in August on the issue of raising the city’s property tax by 1.3 mills to build a new library. Even though the Central Arkansas Library System would have paid the $10,000 to $15,000 cost of the election, the council had problems being told by an outside group when to have an election.

Bobby Roberts, director of the Central Arkansas Library System, told the council then that they might be sued if they went against the wishes of the petitioners who had asked for a vote to raise property taxes by 1.3 mils to build a new library.

The ordinance was just read and approved once at the April meeting. An ordinance must be read and approved three times before becoming law.

In May, Alderman Tim McMinn asked the council to change the election date in the proposed ordinance from Aug. 12 to the general election, knowing that library supporters might sue and it would delay the project.

His amendment to change the election passed by one vote, but the council only read and approved the amended ordinance once because the city attorney was not at the meeting.

On June 23, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel sent a six-page opinion to state Rep. Jim Nickels stating that the council, not the petitioners, was in charge of setting the election date and that the decision could be made at a special or general election.

In the letter to Nickels, which City Attorney Steve Cobb presented to the council, McDaniel wrote, “You have requested my opinion on the following questions concerning a petition for a capital improvement tax for a city library:

 “Do the petitioners requesting the annual tax be levied on real and personal property for the purpose of building a new public library have the authority to set the month of a special election?

 “Does the city council have the authority to determine whether issues will be submitted at a general or special election?”

Citing court law, McDaniels wrote, “The Arkansas Supreme Court has said that the actual scheduling of a date of an election is generally a matter for local officials, rather than the petition sponsors.”

In the second matter, McDaniels wrote that, although case law is not entirely clear, it suggests, “The city’s body will have the discretion to call a special election, or to decide the matter will be presented to the voters at a general election.”

McMinn said at the May council meeting, “We all agree we need a new library, plus that would also allow the police department to use the old library building, but a special election as requested by the library system doesn’t turn out a large number of voters. This is an election on a tax. We should want a larger turnout than 1,500 to 2,000 voters making the decision for 30,000.”

On Monday night, McMinn actually asked that his May amendment be rescinded and replaced with another one, approved by the council, that essentially said the same thing — let’s vote on it in November — but cleaned up the language to make the ordinance more clear.

Because the election is now set for November, if it passes, collections cannot start until January 2016, meaning the library will be built after that unless some sort of special financing is put in place.

Mayor Virginia Hillman explained that the November vote would mean almost a year delay in collections of the new tax and a delay in the library construction. “We have to report in October to the state our millage for the next year. If the vote is after October, we can’t report the library until October 2015,” she said.

Roberts said previously that a 1989 amendment to the state constitution allowed residents to petition for an election for new libraries. He said the petitions came in with four times the number of signatures needed. “It is the council’s administrative duty to approve the election date.”

But Alderman Mary Jo Heye begged to differ at the April meeting.

She said the petitioners have the right to call for an election, but not when. “That is the job of this council,” she said.

But it took almost two months to get the Attorney General’s opinion that Heye, McMinn and others were right.

No site has been picked for the new library. Roberts said that would be done after the election. “We don’t want the site to influence the outcome of the election.”