After giving the public a final chance to voice their opinions, the Benton City Council split the vote on ordinance 11 five to five with a tie breaking vote in favor of the ordinance cast by Benton Mayor Tom Farmer.
"I was elected to make tough decisions," Farmer said as he cast his vote.
The ordinance amends two previous ordinances, 46 of 2005 and 50 of 2011, extending the one and one half percent tax on short term stays and prepared foods.
Previously, the city held four hearings to gather community feedback.
Damon Helton, local business owner, spoke against the tax during the public comments on the ordinance.
"When this was given to the people, it was billed to sunset," Helton said.
Barbara Elrod said she was for the tax, but believes the people of the city should get to vote on it. She feels the 12 possible projects the extension could fund is too many options and should be narrowed down to one the people vote on.
Lori Morrella talked about being from Niagra Falls, New York, before moving to Benton. She said because the New York side has not invested money into itself it has been failing as a city with many of its businesses boarded up.
Morrella said Benton is a great place, but needs more for tourism. She encouraged the council to continue the tax to keep moving the city forward.
Shane Broadway, of the Saline County Economic Development Corporation and former Arkansas speaker of the House, said the General Assembly gave the council the authority to vote on an A&P tax. He added the ordinance would benefit the city going forward if passed.
He discussed the impact parks have on Benton, pointing out how many people came into the city this past weekend for the various state tournaments. He saw members of other teams dining in restaurants, thus paying this tax with out of town dollars.
He also talked about how more people are choosing where to live based on quality of life, such as amenities like the parks projects being proposed.
"You have the opportunity to lay that foundation," Broadway said.
Ken Yang told the council there are other places that succeed without taxes like this one.
"Arkansas has the third highest sales tax nation-wide," Yang said.
With this tax, people pay a total of 12.875 percent on covered spending, according to Yang. He said people do not like it when the government sticks its hand in their pocket.
He also objected to the tax money being spent by a commission and not elected officials. He suggested the tax be put to a vote during the 2022 primary election.
Terry Benham said the council was empowered by the people who elected them to make decisions. As someone who represents families of youth sports, Benham said is excited for things in the town that attract tourism.
"I trust you to make this decision," Benham said.
He added he hates taxes, but understands the need to invest in the city. He said this tax has also created two key parts of the community, the Benton Event Center and River Center, that put the city on the map.
Jonathan Wind said he loves the ideas being considered, but feels the council should trust the people to vote on the tax. He encouraged them to put it on the ballot.
"What are you afraid of?" he asked.
Helton returned to the microphone and engaged in a testy exchange with Farmer when Farmer told him he already had his turn. Helton said he had not used his full three minutes. City Attorney Baxter Drennon told Helton he needed to follow the procedure.
Helton said he wanted to rebut points made by others. Farmer told him this was not a debate. Helton shot back that it should be.
He finally returned to his seat before exiting the council chambers.
Tom Hanson got up and said he did not like the tax being extended because it was supposed to be temporary.
Shane Pigue said he was there on behalf of the A&P Commission. He talked about the upcoming Wally Hall Tournament, which brings people from all over to the community. He said when the A&P tax came in it allowed them to redo some of the parks which is why they can host the tournament and others. He hoped it would pass.
Billy Coke was another who took issue with it not sunsetting.
"Be fair to the people," he said.
The council took its turn to comment.
Council Member Jeff Morrow said while he supports the tax, talking to his constituents he feel this has been rushed for no reason. He asked the mayor to put a pause on it. He talked about the trust of the voters.
"If we take this action tonight, we will violate that trust," he said.
He wanted to define the purpose better.
Council Member Judd Hart said the city is following the same path it did when it created the Benton Event Center. He said then the council voted on the tax and the people voted on the project. He said that is the same plan here, to pass the tax and then have the people vote on the project.
"I told people it would sundown," Council Member Steve Lee said about when the Benton Event Center was voted on in 2011.
He said he would have to vote no or else he would be made a liar.
Donnor, who was also on the council in 2011, agreed with Lee. He said the A&P commission has done an amazing job paying the event center off early. He wants the city to choose another project to get behind before going forward.
When the council voted Morrow, Council Member Shane Knight, Lee, Council Member Robin Freeman and Donnor voted against it. Hart, Council Member Jeff Hamm, Council Member Frank Baptist, Council Member Steve Brown and Council Member Evelyn Reed voted in favor.
That sent the vote to Farmer to break the tie and he voted in favor.
Farmer thanked all the council members.
"I appreciate people standing up for what they believe in," he said.
Brown said now that the vote was passed, everyone should come together to support it the best they can.
Farmer charged the council members with selecting two people from each ward to form a focus group to determine what project the city will move forward with.
Even though he voted against it, Lee appreciated the tax was passed. He said the city must look to the future.
"We can't go backward, we have got to go forward," he said.
The other business of the meeting will be in an upcoming edition of The Saline Courier.