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The debate of the Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce’s proposed economic development deal is still weighing on the minds of some members of the Baxter County Quorum Court.
Following the final resolution of the court’s August meeting, Justice of the Peace Cameron Davis took to the microphone to lay out his thoughts on the Chamber’s deal and the court’s reaction.
“Back in the Spring, I was in a meeting in DC, in the Senate chamber office building, and one of the representatives there said, ‘this is where good ideas come to die,’” said Davis. “And there’s all kinds of things that come before us and we always look for reasons to vote against them, but we need to be looking to make sure there’s not a reason to vote for thing and not let this be the place where good ideas come to die in Baxter County.”
The debate over the Chamber’s proposed $40,000 economic development contract with the City of Mountain Home and Baxter County has been a contentious topic among the public, garnering its fair share of silent support and public outrage.
At a surface level, the public divide centers on sending public tax dollars to a 501c(3) non-profit organization. Non-profits in Baxter County have benefited greatly from taxpayer funds of the past two years, largely in part due to a large influx of federal COVID money in local Baxter County governments.
Organizations ranging from the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas, which feeds to the poor and hungry throughout the entire region, to small private organizations like the Mountain Home Saddle Club have been given hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money for the benefit of their organization.
Baxter County’s Quorum Court approved nearly $1 million in taxpayer funding for nonprofits since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The public’s reaction to these “handouts” has been mixed, with some handouts receiving little to no reaction to others, like the Saddle Club, bringing in a large amount of public outrage.
Unlike previous taxpayer asks, the Chamber’s proposal was for a contract of service, in which Chamber President Dani Pugsley would serve as Mountain Home and Baxter County’s economic development coordinator, ensuring that both government bodies were working towards the same goal. The $40,000 in taxpayer funding would be used to hire an additional employee at the Chamber, freeing up Pugsley so that she could focus on economic development and services such as grant writing.
The contract would see members of both governing bodies serve on the board of the Chamber’s non-profit. The Chamber would also be required to give a report to the city and the county about the progress they’ve made on the governing bodies behalf. The deal, as proposed, would last for one year.
In its end of the month joint committee session, the Quorum Court effectively tabled the proposed contract indefinitely, citing several concerns including the Chamber not approaching their own members to raise money for a new employee and voter push back.
“I’m a small business owner myself,” said Justice of the Peace Dirk Waldrop during the meeting. “If I don’t have the money for something, guess what? I do without.”
A deeper look at the issue of taxpayer funding reveals a bigger political divide in the community over Baxter County’s growth and relative isolation from the rest of the state. One side wishes to see Baxter County to continue to grow its economy and attract new residents, while the other would see the county pump the brakes on economic development to avoid becoming the “next Jonesboro.”
As Dr. Ray Stahl of Mountain Home said during the county’s Economic Development Committee meeting in June on the Chamber’s proposal said, “The thing I have always been fighting against here, is that every new resident who comes to Baxter County, wants to shut the gate behind them.”
Both sides are currently locked in a stalemate on the issue. The City of Mountain Home has agreed to the Chamber’s contract, despite an ongoing legal snafu, while the county has all but outright rejected it.
It should be noted that Baxter County has seen a massive economic boom since 2018, with new residents and businesses flocking to the area, bringing a large influx of sales tax dollars to both county and city governments.
Yet that growth has come with some costs, including rising taxes to fund government projects like the construction of Mountain Home’s upcoming convention and aquatic center and the overhaul of its park system. Property owners in Baxter County also got a heavy dose of sticker shock from increased property tax rates.
High inflation from federal government spending during the COVID-19 pandemic has also rocked the wallets of taxpayers living in Baxter County, who have spent the past year dealing with high food and fuel costs. And while inflation is “dropping” according to the federal government, many of those higher than normal prices have been baked into the economy permanently.
Davis ended his comments on the Chambers proposal by speaking to the benevolence of local taxpayers who spend their money in Baxter County. The comment drew a stern statement from JP Waldrop.
“It’s not benevolence, they don’t have a choice,” Waldrop said. “People who own property don’t have a choice. There’s no benevolence involved in this.”
Other court news
The court conducted the second reading of an ordinance adopting revisions and additions to the Baxter County Personnel Policy Manual and pay scale and the Baxter County Sheriff’s Office Personnel Policy Manual.
Both manuals and pay scales have been going through a streamlining process over the past few years in an attempt to offer all county employees the same benefits and work standards across the board.
In new business, the court took an ordinance to appropriate funds in the amount of $89,000 from the Road and Bridge Fund into the Motor Fuel Tax Fund. The funds received are from the recent sale of equipment and will be put towards the paving of a one mile stretch of road on Denton Ferry Rd.
Following that ordinance, the court moved to appropriate $195,291.93 in funds to its LATC Fund. The funding will be used for future expenditures for the courthouse and to purchase two new servers for the county’s IT Departments.
The evening wrapped up with resolutions to appoint Wayne Frazier, Fred Baer and Ron Langston to their respective district’s fire protection board of directors.
The court also took up a resolution to apply for a grant on behalf of the Cotter-Gassville Rural Fire Protection District. The grant will cover new tires for three vehicles, an engine and a brush truck, two 50 foot three-inch hoses, a rapid attack monitor, nozzle and mounting bracket, and four new extraction tools.