Editor’s Note: Each week in the month of July, Crossett’s mayoral candidates will each answer a question about an issue that has been posed by one of the other candidates. By participating in the print forum, the candidates get a chance to discuss issues that they think should be a priority while giving the public a chance to understand how they will approach leading the city. The answers are presented as written by the candidates. Candidate Sarah Hollimon submitted this week’s question.
Question: “Crossett and Ashley County taxpayers are relied upon to fund such elements as our hospital, our library, our high school and our economic development foundation. As our number one employer, the paper mill, shrinks its operations here, our population is shrinking as well. This means less taxpayers to provide tax dollars to the aforementioned elements. How do you plan to compensate this shortfall to ensure Crossett and Ashley County get to keep these important elements?”
Georgia Pacific, Crossett’s largest employer and the company that remains the life blood of our community, has made permanent layoffs and closures of various divisions of their operations as a result of violations of The Clean Air Act.
These cuts have resulted in less taxes being available for our essential services. Crossett residents recently voted to raise taxes to help fund an essential sewer project, but we can’t keep putting more taxes on less people.
We must create jobs and attract new residents to make Crossett their home. We can grow our economy and our town. As mayor, I will implement a multi-faceted approach to offset those losses and make Crossett prosperous.
We have a vast pool of talented individuals in our community. Industrial trained professionals in multiple fields. Machinists, fabricators, welders, and skilled craftsmen that are qualified to design, build, and maintain cutting edge products are available to go to work. There’s a shortage of these professionals and they are in demand. We need to market their abilities to various sectors, bring attention to them to sustain, and help expand their operations. Critical component manufacturers are in short supply globally. As mayor, I would work to form a Crossett Area Business Retention and Expansion Team to help these businesses and develop new business opportunities. This team would be made up of area business owners who are committed to seeing Crossett prosper. Reaching different sectors offers diversity and sustainable growth even if GP curtails operations further. I’ll work with UAM school of technology to expand their curriculum to offer training in a wider variety of fields. CHS should consider developing a work program and open campus for lunch. It would boost our economy, reward students, teach responsibility, and encourage more students to get their driver’s license before they graduate.
Small business is the backbone of our country. Incentivize new owners to set up shop in Crossett. Reduce taxes, subsidize rent, provide a business incentive package and help new enterprises. Residents and CHS graduates would receive incentives to become business owners. Many communities embrace this approach and have grown through the opening of several businesses. There are many state and federal grants for the development of small business opportunities. The SBA offers financial aid. A Business Retention and Expansion Team could help with hurdles faced by new businesses for smoother, more profitable ventures and to grow established businesses.
I will expand on existing opportunities. Our sports complex is underutilized and could host multi-day tournaments, baseball, softball, soccer, and clinics for pitching and batting. Develop additional fields. Several tournament coordinators have reached out to me offering help. Tex-Moore Ballpark should be used more for games. An annual Home Run Derby could be hosted there. Call it water-balling and let kayakers try to catch the balls that are hit out for prizes. Make it a weekend event. The RV park and river area needs to be a focus to bring in more water sport enthusiasts, fishermen and hunters. Many out of state hunters come to town to hunt at Felsenthal and camp at the RV Park. We have a world class location that needs to be better managed for growth and use. I’ll work with the Chamber and Classy Cruisers to develop a weekend long Hot Rod Show and Crossett cruise. Make it a city-wide, annual event that attracts car enthusiasts from all over to take part.
As mayor I will work on these as well as many other projects to help Crossett with sustainable growth. Building a better tomorrow with more opportunities while honoring our traditions.
My stance on Crossett growth and revenue leans on tourism. Yes, our population is shrinking, something happening all over Southeast Arkansas. But I refuse to accept this as our end.
Over the past year as your Parks and Recreation Assistant Director, I have gathered community together to host events that pulled families in from places we typically head to for entertainment. To name just a couple: The Ball Drop Block Party attracted hundreds of people from as far away as Texarkana and Conway, as well as from Bastrop, Hamburg and Crossett. Our Fourth of July bash at the City Pool brought in families from El Dorado.
When I say “tourism,” maybe you jump to large scale offerings like amusement parks. That isn’t the version of tourism that fits Crossett. Look to places like Jefferson, Texas. The town gardening club realized in the late 1800s that their main industry was leaving them. They dug their heels in and turned their waterway and historical homes into tourist attractions. Tourism is still their backbone nearly 150 years later. Under my direction we will focus on what we have, repair and update these sites, start enjoying them more ourselves then attract outsiders in with marketing campaigns.
Many people’s thoughts turn toward money. From a linear thinking standpoint it seems like you have to have money to spend money. But I am a nonlinear thinker and can see beyond what is put in front of my face. I see in possibilities and this vision is what Crossett needs.
Through my work in Parks and Recreation we have pulled off events and started programs with little to no money. And all of them generated revenue for Crossett because they either got us out of our homes and into town or brought long distance neighbors here.
Because of the crucial nature of our city budget, I will form an advisory board to supplement our City Council and guide me through the meticulous decisions it will take to move us in a safer direction financially. I will add a budget item to all of our City Council meetings that will bring citizens out of the dark on how we divide and spend revenue. The recent budget scare concerning COVID-related shortfalls unnecessarily hit a panic button among community members largely due to the uninformed nature of Crossett when it comes to city finances. We must be more revealing in this area.
I understand, also, that our contract with the Crossett Economic Development Foundation is up for renewal. We need to consider our new direction and how it affects the percentage of taxes we can funnel to this institution. Economic development is extremely important as is funding it properly. As it stands we fund ours very differently than other areas in our region do theirs. At one time our way might have been the best way for us. Now, however, we need to evolve our funding to better fit our direction. This forward thinking can be uncomfortable for some, but we have to do what is best for Crossett as a whole. In studying how other towns in our region fund their foundations I find that there are more ways to do so than how Crossett presently does. I will ask our City Council to scrutinize the present contract to find ways we can make this partnership more beneficial to our town.
As we lean on tourism and by doing so increase our generated revenue, being able to depend on our taxes to pay for the elements listed in the question will not only remain possible, it will be more plausible.
Recruitment and retention of businesses and citizens is always a priority, but after our community received the announcement of layoffs last summer it became critical we increase these efforts from many directions.
One thing we’ve initiated is a Census Drive to increase Crossett’s census count. Every person counted directly results in funding for vital community services. Now more than ever it is critical everyone be counted, and we are dedicated to this initiative.
In partnership with our library, we’ve provided a kiosk in City Hall for people to complete their census with help available for those needing assistance.
We are blessed in Crossett with an incredible talent pool, abundance of natural resources, easily accessible port and airport, railroad, a new four lane highway, and a community that perseveres despite the most arduous of challenges. The upcoming wastewater infrastructure project is another piece of the puzzle to further elevate, not only our ability to provide new industry a home with increased water processing capacity, but better support our existing businesses on that system.
Marketing all that Cossett has to offer is an important role for mayor. They should advocate for their community both in partnership with the Economic Development Foundation and the Southeast Arkansas Economic Development District, and as a CEO of the City. The power of a phone call should never be minimized as one never knows what businesses deal may stem from a simple conversation.
Perhaps the largest infrastructure gap in not only our community, but across our country is the lack of quality, reliable, stable broadband internet. Our internet instability not only impacts companies looking to relocate, but also affects our current businesses, healthcare, and our education system. This was an issue before Covid-19, but now it’s crucial as we have moved so many things from meetings and education to doctor’s appointments to a virtual setting. The government’s recognition of the crippling effect this lack of service has on rural areas led them to allocate approximately $27,000,000 in grant funding in Arkansas for this initiative. Working together with our partners at the Municipal League and the Governor’s State Broadband Office, I’ve begun the grant application process for Crossett. The competitive advantage this could give us over other towns our size has the potential to change the landscape of Crossett forever.
Another important factor in any economy is attracting visitors through events. When we host events like the rodeo or even the monthly farmer’s market event, we generate revenue not only from our community members, but from outside our borders pumping more money into our town.
Realizing how important this was, Mayor McCormick and I worked to add an Events Planning/Assistant Parks and Recreation role for our city. This has paid tremendous dividends as their talents have brought so much energy and excitement to Crossett that will continue long into our future. Our city park, disc golf course, sports complex, beautifully remodeled swimming pool and more are underutilized revenue generators for our community. Working with our innovative Parks and Recreation crew and our incredibly resourceful citizens, we can continue working together to capitalize on all Crossett has to offer.
While working to push Crossett forward into the future is vital, it is also important to analyze current processes for opportunities to increase efficiency and maximize the output of tax dollars. Our team is dedicated to this objective and collaborates regularly on how to improve processes. During my 10-year career with Corporate Walmart, I became a believer in one of Mr. Sam Walton’s most famous quotes “ Listen to your employees. They’re the best idea generators”. This was true at Walmart and is true here at the City of Crossett.
Fiscal responsibility is a priority to our team. Monthly budget and finance meetings allow us to work together with our municipal officials, accountant, and community to keep us on the path to financial success. This meeting is an open forum to the public where they are encouraged to attend for fiscal transparency.
Through these initiatives we can continue to work together to make Crossett a place more businesses, industries, and citizens choose to call home. Together we can!
The first part of this week’s question references taxpayer funding for our Crossett entities such as our hospital, library, high school and Economic Development Foundation. The financial support for these elements comes from either a millage tax that is based on real estate and property taxes or sales tax from sales revenue. Even if our citizens move out of Crossett, those homes remain here, so those real estate tax dollars would still remain.
However, we will lose on property tax as citizens leave the area and take their personal property such as cars, boats, trailers, etc. Sales revenue could also be lost when fewer people spend money in our town. This could have an impact and will take proactive work to prevent losses. There are two significant ways to combat this issue:
(1) Do a better job of promoting our city to entice new business and citizens so that they would want to plant roots here. One of the ways would be to reach out through business seminars that are available throughout the Unites States to promote our city and county. I know that we have sent our Economic Development director and additional committee members to do that in the past, but we need a proactive mayor working hard as well to pull these resources in and grow our town.
As your mayor, I would make this a priority in my daily activities. We actually have more to offer businesses now than ever before. We have always had a skilled workforce but have not always had available workers because Georgia Pacific retained those employees and paid rates that made it very difficult for other business to come in and compete for that labor. Now, with the loss of so many Georgia Pacific jobs, we do have work force availability and people that want to be here in Crossett but have been forced to find jobs elsewhere and end up commuting long distances each day to make things work. Additionally, we have an available fiber base for wood manufacturing facilities and at a competitive price. In the past 60 years this timber/fiber has been almost completely engulfed by Georgia Pacific and its needs.
(2) Work closely with department heads and the City Council to manage the City’s budget to make sure we generated revenue where we should and to reduce costs in each area of our city’s business where we can. This would come from city employees ideas and opinions and working through the department heads. Very seldom can you not come up with better ways of doing the jobs if we only ask those that are performing those tasks. We can most often make the job task easier and even safer when utilizing their support. My managerial experience with multi-million dollar budgets and working with people will provide the necessary guidance that it will take should budget cuts be necessary.
I had the honor of meeting Mayor Sheldon Day from Thomasville, Ala., earlier in the year. He was the guest speaker at the Crossett Area Chamber of Commerce Banquet. Thomasville has been very successful under his guidance and is now a booming city.
This is what I want for Crossett. I am passionate for us to have a success story. If elected mayor, my plan would be to utilize his successes to help our growth. He is more than willing to help and would serve as a mentor during any precarious situations. Though I managed a Fortune 500 facility for many years, I will never be to proud to reach out and utilize experience and knowledge from professionals.
As Mayor Sheldon Day stated when he was here - “ When someone throws a rock at you, the natural response is to throw the rock back at them….instead, catch the rock, say thank you and use the rock to build something positive.”
In closing, let me say that we should all concentrate on being rock catchers during these challenging times. It will take positive reinforcement from all to generate the successes needed for our proud town of Crossett! It’s not about me, it’s about us!
Sometimes you find yourself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Some refer to it as a Catch-22 (used first by Joseph Heller in his 1961 book entitled “Catch-22”). Others prefer to say — with different words than I use — “darned if you do and darned if you don’t.” These clichés and others are used to describe the state all of us are in: we want great schools, a fantastic hospital, a more than adequate library, all the necessary services the city can provide, and we want new businesses to come into town to provide jobs for our people. The Catch 22 is the city and county cannot provide those services and pay for our library, hospital and schools without adequate funding that comes from that dreaded word “TAXES.” Does anyone wish they could pay more taxes? I’ve never met anyone who prays that way.
Whether or not we want to admit it, Crossett residents pay very little taxes in comparison to other areas of our state and country. Now, in Ashley County we pay more Property Tax than any other city. Crossett has the highest millage rate (54.07) in Ashley County. The City of Portland is second with 52.20. Fountain Hill, Parkdale, Wilmot and Hamburg are tied for third with 51.80. Crossett Rural is only 47.27.
Residents outside our city limits do not contribute toward the City Library (2.4 mils), the City of Crossett (5.0 mils) or the Fireman Pension (.30 mils). The tax rate for property is assessed in mills per dollar. A mill is .0010 percent (10 mills equals 1 penny). Little Rock pays a 70.10 millage rate. We need to be realistic though and realize that even though some towns have a smaller millage tax rate (El Dorado’s is 45.50), they have more valuable properties like oil and/or larger businesses which support their city or county.
Some of you may question how I know such things about property assessment and taxes. I have a former client — I was his financial advisor — who lives in Houston, Texas. He worked for the Harris County Appraisal District and retired after 35 years. He now works for the Marvin F. Poer and Company. They specialize in getting residential and commercial assessments lowered so their customers, like me, pay less taxes. He and I had long talks about taxes and assessments. My wife and I recently engaged his company to get the taxes lowered on our commercial property in Cypress, Texas. I’ve also talked with our County Assessor, Beth Rush, concerning our current county taxes in order to educate myself with the various taxes we pay.
Sometimes we don’t know how good we have it in Crossett and the low taxes relative to other areas. I spent some time examining the taxes of a number of properties in Crossett and compared them to our office building and house we own in Houston. The property taxes we pay on those properties are over six times higher than what we pay in Ashley County. Yes, I know that Texas does not have personal income or personal property taxes, but even when you figure in those amounts, we still pay four to five times than what we do here.
Which leads me to the solutions of this issue. I am a low tax and small government kind of guy, so as mayor it will not be on my agenda to make us like any other city or state. The only options to provide more services and keep our current property assessments and tax rates are as follows:
1. We have to get more businesses to move into Crossett. From those businesses we get not only part of the property tax, but also part of the sales tax. It would be my goal to work closely with the Economic Development Board to assist them in whatever it takes to get more and more companies into Crossett.
2. We need more people to move into town. It doesn’t help us if people live and shop outside the city limits, so we need to make Crossett a more attractive town where new people want to live.
3. We need to severely address the run down and abandoned houses in Crossett. Their value is so low for tax purposes since they do not generate an adequate tax payment, which hurts us all.
Now, I do understand the mayor has no authority to increase or decrease taxes. The City Council makes a recommendation to the city and the voters cast their ballots for or against any increase. My task, if I am elected mayor, is to squeeze every dollar for what it’s worth by managing the money in an accountable manner which is transparent for all to see. I have a great deal of experience in this regard and am quite familiar with the process.
We can do all these things without raising taxes if we are frugal with our resources and become more and more efficient in the process. It would be my hope that within a few years we could actually recommend a tax reduction. Now, wouldn’t that be unusual for a mayor to suggest!