During its April meeting Monday night, the Benton City Council heard the second reading of an ordinance which, if passed, will establish a one and one half percent tax on gross receipts or proceeds of hotels, motels, restaurants, cafes, cafeterias and similar businesses in the city of Benton for advertising and promoting the city.
“I do want to share there’s been a lot of confusion as to exactly what this pertains to,” said Benton Mayor Tom Farmer. “Basically it pertains to any prepared food item that you will purchase at a restaurant, at a coffee shop, a hotel or other places like that.”
Farmer added that the tax does not affect items such as clothing or household appliances, such as washing machines or refrigerators.
“It is basically on prepared food or hotel stays,” Farmer said. “The thing about it is, we want to be completely transparent about it.
The council heard the first of three required readings of the ordinance in March and has held public hearings to gauge responses and share with residents how the funds would be used. The third and final reading will be heard during the May council meeting. Prior to that, an additional public hearing will be held at the Benton Event Center on May 17.
Farmer shared that in its efforts to be transparent, the city has advertised the public hearings on social media outlets, billboards and in The Saline Courier.
“We’re trying to get the word out as much as possible,” Farmer said. “Hopefully, getting as many people as possible to that last public hearing so that we can hear what you the public have to say.”
Farmer acknowledge that there has been a lot of confusion surrounding the tax mostly centered on the fact that the current A&P tax will sunset once the Benton Event Center has been paid off.
“It will,” Farmer said. “The old A&P tax will sunset 30 days after the bond for the event center is paid off. This one is to create, not a new one, but to extend another one to accommodate for advertising and promotion of the city of Benton.”
Calling the tax an “investment for the future,” Farmer said that the tax funds will be used to help bring tourism to the city which will, in turn, improve revenue and allow the city to expand facilities. Some of the possible ways the funds can be used include a soccer complex, a water park and bike trails. He also spoke about recent Benton Area Chamber of Commerce Banquet where speaker Steuart Walton shared how the instillation of bike trails vastly improved northwest Arkansas and that the return on that investment has brought money to the area.
Farmer said that the purpose of the public hearing will be to clarify the city's plans for the funds and how the tax will work.
Alderman Jeff Hamm told the council during the agenda meeting held prior to the council meeting, that he too believes that most residents do not understand the tax and that residents haven’t taken the time to understand it.
“They don’t take the newspaper,” Hamm said. “They don’t listen to the news. They skim over everything on Facebook, so they don’t know exactly what is going on. I’ve gotten a number of letters just in the last few days in this regard.”
Hamm added that he wants the people to understand why the council is considering the tax.
“We’re not doing this on a whim,” Hamm said. “But, we’re going to proceed if necessary in order to take things properly in the business of the city of Benton, Arkansas. I think right now we’ve got a lot of people against this situation and want it to go to a vote, but they have no clue what’s going on.”
Alderman Steve Lee added that a lot of information he has seen on Facebook regarding the tax that did not come from official sources has been wrong. When one specific post was brought to his attention by his wife, Lee reached out to that to set the record straight. Not only did the individual promise to correct their mistake publicly, once the tax was explained they went from being against the tax to supporting it.
Alderman Jeff Morrow also added that from the e-mails he has received, there is a lot of misinformation regarding the tax and its purpose. Specifically that people are asking why streets are not fixed not realizing that A&P tax proceeds can only be used for specific things such as Parks and Recreation or promoting tourism.
“They are comingling this A&P with different pots of money and they are getting confused by that,” Morrow said. “This A&P is for parks and improvements to promote and increase people’s property values.”
During the public comments on the tax at Monday night’s council meeting, local resident Barbara Elrod shared her concerns that despite the city’s effort to publicize the hearings and share information about the tax itself, not enough people in the city are aware of it. She thanked the council for its efforts so far, but said that not all of the aldermen have contacted their constituents.
“I’ve polled people in different places and there is still a lot of people out there that don’t know it,” Elrod said. “I don’t know what the answer to that is. I just feel like that, I do appreciate your efforts now. I think that it just really needs to be talked up.”
Elrod said she is not against the tax, but that she is against the way the council is “going about it.”
“I feel like that if you extend a tax that somebody voted on, they should have the ability to be able to vote on whether they want that tax extended (and) not just left up to ten people in our city,” Elrod said.
During the agenda meeting prior to the council meeting, it was announced that Aldermen Evelyn Reed and Robin Freeman will be holding a meeting for those in their wards at Ralph Bunche Park at 3 p.m. on May 16 to discuss the tax along with other issues in the community.
Freeman said that even though the city is doing its part to educate the public on the tax and about the hearings, she felt that the aldermen themselves should be doing their part to get the word out.
“I can’t go door-to-door to knock,” Freeman said. “So, this is a way we are trying to reach people in our wards to help spread the word and just provide information and a q and a to talk about this tax and other issues.”
Elrod suggested that the other aldermen on the council should follow Freeman and Reed’s lead and hold similar meetings.
Farmer said that the aldermen have been active in answering calls and emails from their constituents regarding the tax.
“No one is avoiding the subject,” Farmer said. “Everyone has been doing a good job, I’ll brag on these council people, in trying to get the information out. I wish I had a magic wand where I could say ‘zap’ and 38,000 people have the information.”
Elrod also asked why the decision has to be made so quickly since the tax would not begin until after the event center is paid off.
Farmer said that he believed the three month process where the tax will have been under discussion is sufficient and that even if the council where to hold off even one additional month, it still might not be possible for every resident to be fully informed despite the city’s best efforts. He also added that all of the billboards that the city has used to promote the meetings have been donated and that no tax payer dollars have been used.
“Hopefully we can get 300 or 400 people to the event center so that we can share the information,” Farmer said.
For more from Monday night’s meeting, see upcoming editions of The Saline Courier.