BENTONVILLE — Benton County voters soundly rejected a sales tax increase Tuesday to pay for a new courts building and renovations to an existing one.
The final but unofficial results show 6,055 votes against (62 percent) to 3,714 votes for (38 percent). The turnout was 6 percent of the county’s 161,802 registered voters. Results will be certified on March 22.
“I am disappointed, but I respect the vote and the outcome,” Benton County Judge Barry Moehring said. “To a great degree, we are back to square one. This is still a problem that has to be solved.”
The one-eighth-cent sales tax increase would have paid for a $30 million courthouse. The tax will would have been for 54 months, Moehring said. The new courthouse would have been built on Northeast Second Street in downtown Bentonville.
The county had proposed spending another $5 million to update the downtown courthouse, including the courtroom on the third floor. The courthouse was built in 1928.
“We will continue to hold court,” Moehring said. “The people who conduct court for us do a wonderful job, and they will continue to do so. We will keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last couple of decades.”
The tax increase would have allowed the county to consolidate the courts, to increase security and to make it more convenient for those who go to court, Moehring said.
Third-party support included the donation of land where the building would have been built from the Walton Family Foundation, a $2 million grant from the foundation and a parking deck for up to 400 vehicles by Off-Street Parking District No. 3, Moehring said. Third-party contributions were valued close to $10 million, but those incentives were tied to a downtown location, he said. The offers will terminate Dec. 31, according to county documents.
“I expected it to be a closer vote,” Justice of the Peace Pat Adams said in a phone call from Pennsylvania. “There’s no alternate plan. We threw everything into this. We worked hard on this. The Quorum Court did its job. We knew all along it was up to the voters.”
The county and the Walton Family Foundation commissioned a needs assessment study for a courthouse in 2014. The study showed a new court building was needed. Initial concepts came in around $45 million, Moehring said.
In 2016, the company Dewberry did a study and six plans with locations near the county jail on Southwest 14th Street and downtown. The chosen plan comes from one of those downtown concepts. The Quorum Court passed a resolution supporting a new court building downtown in March 2017.
Hight Jackson, the architecture firm hired by the county, molded the concept into an 87,000-square-foot building in four stories and a basement. The top story would have been finished later with two more courtrooms.
Circuit Court is held in various locations around the city, including the annex building across the street from the current courthouse and a building on Main Street.
There was opposition to the tax plan. Michael Kalagias, president of the Libertarian Party, said the county wanted to make a statement by building a grand facility. He called it a “monument piece” in meetings leading up to the election.
“I was against the tax increase,” he said as he waited Tuesday night at the Election Commission office in Rogers for final results to be tallied. “It’s not needed. We could do it out of reserves. I’ve said that all along. I was encouraged by the numbers. I didn’t think it would be that big of a margin.”
Some residents said they could see the need for a new court building, but weren’t happy with how it would be paid for. Others preferred a location near the county jail. Some questioned the need for a special election and whether the county was trying to “sneak” the measure past voters a week before spring break starts.
The tax proposal was supported by a committee called Better Courthouse, Better Benton County. The committee reported more than $68,000 in contributions as of March 5, according to its latest filing with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
The county already has a 1-cent sales tax, and the revenue it produces is growing. Sales tax revenue has increased an average of 7.12 percent since 2012, county comptroller Brenda Guenther previously said. The tax brought in a little more than $10 million in 2018, and the 2019 budget forecasts an increase of 8.45 percent, according to information provided by Guenther.
Most of the 1-cent sales tax revenue goes to the cities; the county gets 19.1 percent of the 1 cent, Guenther said.
The last time the county asked for a special sales tax to build facilities was in 1995, according to county documents. Voters approved a half-cent sales tax to build the county jail on Southwest 14th Street. The tax was collected for 36 months.
Moehring routinely touted increased safety at town hall meetings to support the tax. Prisoners who are arraigned before Circuit Judge Robin Green in her courtroom in the historic courthouse sit right next to the public. The new building would have had a secure holding area where inmates could be brought into court one at a time.
There would have been one secure public entrance with a metal detector.