Judge stops election

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The same attorneys argued essentially the same arguments before the same judge at the Osceola Courthouse Friday and once again Judge David Laser ruled the same way -- no special election. The special election scheduled for March 14 allowing Mississippi County voters to decide whether or not they wanted a sales tax to be levied for the purpose of building a new courthouse in Blytheville was enjoined.

The next step in the process appears to come when the Arkansas Supreme Court (ASC) "considers" the appeal by the county in the case that was enjoined in July. But there is no guarantee that the ASC will make a ruling. They may chose, upon consideration, that the issue is moot since the Aug. 9 date had passed and not rule at all.

Laser enjoined the earlier special election because he felt that collecting countywide taxes to pay for a courthouse that "only benefits the Chickasawba District" was illegal.

Therefore, on Dec. 13, 2016 the Quorum Court passed new measures that, in their opinion, were substantially different. They included changes to the language that addressed all published concerns that Laser expressed in July. However, both the attorneys for the City of Osceola and ultimately Laser himself, found the changes to be cosmetic. Laser acknowledged that the Quorum Court attempted to address his concerns, but that ultimately, the same fundamental issues remained.

During the hearing Friday, only four witnesses testified.

Most questions were procedural questions regarding public notice, how the quorum court allows for public comment, how the specific parcel of land for the proposed new courthouse was chosen, the size of the proposed courthouse and the like.

One witness, from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, testified that there currently is no mechanism in place that would allow county officials to determine from which judicial district sales tax revenue comes from. While it is obvious that it is possible to determine from which district the business is in, it is not discernible from which district the taxpayer lives when they shop outside of their home district.

Attorneys for the county argued that Arkansas Constitutional Amendment 62 allows for countywide funds to be used for capital improvements, while attorneys for the City of Osceola argued that section 20 of Act 81 of 1901 limited revenue used on courthouse improvements to the same judicial district as the courthouse.

Laser also, on multiple occasions, made the distinction that Blytheville was a seat of justice, as opposed to Osceola being the County Seat.

Mike Huffman, as chairman of the Finance Committee of the Mississippi County Hospital System, testified that the current hospital tax is scheduled to sunset in three years and that if the tax is not allowed and approved, that the hospital will have to ask that the hospital tax be extended or they will be exactly where they were three years ago. He also testified that the hospital system spent approximately $80,000 to get the tax passed last time.

The implication being that if the tax is allowed, and then the hospital would have a more permanent revenue stream. He said that the Hospital Board of Governors had unanimously approved the revenue sharing plan surrounding the tax and that it would result in the hospital getting another $1.5 million each year for the duration [$41.5 million over 27 years] rather than just the final $7 million over the next three years.

Bart Calhoun, lead attorney for the City of Osceola and a partner for the Little Rock law firm McDaniel, Richardson and Calhoun said, "Osceola and private plaintiffs are pleased with Judge Laser's ruling. The proposed courthouse, by law, can only be used by the citizens of the Chickasawba District. Judge Laser's ruling protects the citizens of the Osceola Judicial District from having to pay for a courthouse they cannot benefit from."

Nate Steel, lead attorney for the county and a partner for the Little Rock law firm of Steel, Wright, Gray and Hutchinson, said, "The ruling Friday was not unexpected, but it was important that we narrow the issues and create a record. We are immensely confident the appellate court will determine that Mississippi County has the same right to issue bonds for capital improvement projects as every other county in the state. I hope that the hearing also helped dispel misinformation and confusion. Testimony from the hospital board showed that this plan is clearly in the best interests of the hospital system, and county officials testified that this project has absolutely nothing to do with the county seat. Opponents of the project offered no evidence to dispute either of those propositions."

Mississippi County Quorum Court Justice Neil Burge, who attended the hearing, told the CN, "It is my opinion that the county has no choice but to appeal the ruling by the Judge...his ruling basically said any funds collected in the Osceola Judicial District could only be spent in that District. Any funds collected in the Chickasawba District can only be spent in that district. This completely changes the collection and distribution of ALL county taxes. It is imperative that the Arkansas Supreme clarify this issue as quickly as possible."

Justice Michael White, who testified at the hearing told the CN, "We should be one Mississippi County. One Mississippi County with two judicial districts, each with its own unique problems. We've had to work as one county to solve them. I hope this begins a time of coming together."