February 15, 2017 Edition

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Committee releases findings

The Walnut Ridge Economic Impact Committee, formed in May of 2016 by Mayor Charles Snapp, released some of its findings in a press release on Tuesday.

According to Alderman Jon Walter, chair, the Economic Impact Committee (EIC) was formed to assess the true liability and economic impact on the municipality and government functions of Walnut Ridge, given a possible consolidation with Hoxie within a year.

The committee, which also consists of Gail Jones, David Coker and John Householder, have met seven times to date. According to the release, some meetings were held with Walnut Ridge municipal government department heads or representatives, including fire, police, water and sewer, street, sanitation and general administration.

"Written details and reports of each department's impact, additional resource needs, redundancies and potential efficiencies, based on consolidation, were presented at that time," the release stated. "Input by all department directors was noted and considered. No other meetings have occurred with individuals outside the members of the EIC, the Walnut Ridge mayor and department directors."

Walter said the EIC has also researched information available from both townships including, but not limited to, city government audits, water and sewer audits, revenue and expense statements, city budgets, actual and projected cash flows and sales tax revenue reports.

"After extensive research, it is the opinion of the Economic Impact Committee that the consolidation of the townships of Walnut Ridge and Hoxie is feasible and would prove beneficial in both the short and long-term for the citizens, residents, taxpayers, business owners and recipients of government services," the release states.

"This opinion is based predominately on the current economic status and future economic outlook of both towns, as well as the contiguous geographic location to which city services are provided."

The following were listed as expected benefits of consolidation:

"Eliminated redundancies - Conjoined government efficiencies and improved effective city services in all departments through eliminating redundancies, overlaps and expenses incurred by sustaining two city governments.

"Short and long-term stable tax and fee structures - Gained efficiencies allow government to operate more effectively and lessen the burden on the taxpayer. An example would be: sanitation rates could stabilize at $9 per household, the current rate charged by the Hoxie sanitation department. This is a reduction in Walnut Ridge from the current $12 rate.

"Street repairs - It is the assessment of the committee that current available street funds could be immediately released, up to $300,000, to provide street paving and address drainage issues in the current Hoxie city limits. Walnut Ridge has received a $250,000 grant for street paving for 2017/2018 and plans to add $100,000-$150,000 to the grant from 2017 general revenue.

"Improved Hoxie fire ISO ratings - Provide immediate resources to the consolidated fire department to lower the Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating in the Hoxie city limits from 5 to 3 (Walnut Ridge is currently an ISO of 3). This benefit would reduce property insurance premiums paid by residents and businesses of Hoxie, and the Hoxie School District. Savings could be $100 or more depending on the property.

"Water and sewer infrastructure improvements - It is the opinion of the committee that proceeds from water and sewer funds and excess revenue could be released to address water and sewer line issues to houses and businesses in Hoxie city limits. The desire of the EIC is that infrastructure issues with water and sewer lines in this area be fully and comprehensively addressed, and supplemented by excess general revenue if necessary.

"Increased sales tax base - Stabilize, and then increase revenue by investing in economic development promoting existing businesses and attracting new businesses and industry to the combined 16-square-mile area. Hoxie has seen a decline in overall revenue since 2010, according to the most recent audit, while Walnut Ridge has seen revenue rise since 2012 peaking in 2015 at almost $2.2 million.

"Economic development advantages - Benefits of a combined larger population base of 8,145 to attract businesses, industry and grant funding for economic development and growth, which are needed to sustain, maintain and provide improved government services to residents and businesses in the area without additional tax or fee burden.

The committee reported that it will release the details of their entire research at a presentation to the public and media on March 2 in Walnut Ridge, with an additional presentation on or about March 16 in Hoxie, if desired. More details on these public meetings will be announced at a later date.

"The Impact committee has worked relatively independent to gather information, perform analysis and form an opinion as to a possible consolidation," the release concludes. "A meeting with Mayor Lanny Tinker and/or his proposed consolidation committee is welcomed to address any fears or concerns of the consolidation and the philosophical differences between Mayor Tinker, the committee he seeks to form, and the EIC of Walnut Ridge.

"It is the opinion of the EIC that in no way, form or manner does this study by the EIC constitute a takeover or annexation of Hoxie, hostile or otherwise. Furthermore, the committee does not attest that a consolidation will reflect poorly or affect negatively the current school districts of Hoxie or Lawrence County. School district funding and governing structure is separate from city government.

"It is the opinion of the Economic Impact Committee that the citizens of both towns, Walnut Ridge and Hoxie, have an opportunity to vote, 'for' or 'against' a consolidation measure. We as a committee acknowledge that power lies and rests in the voting rights of the people of both towns and implore the mayors and councilpersons of Walnut Ridge and Hoxie to allow the people a voice to consolidate or to remain separate governments."

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