September 14, 2011 Edition

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Flat tax approved to repair levee

Loyd Richey of Powhatan (left) and Dale Counts of Clover Bend were among a large group of landowners attending a public meeting at the Walnut Ridge Meeting Room on Friday to discuss options for repairing the Running Water Levee, which was breached in April, causing severe flooding in Randolph and Lawrence counties.
TD Photo ~ Gloria Wilkerson
Gloria Wilkerson
Staff Writer

Following floods in late April that damaged homes and crops in Randolph and Lawrence counties when a levee system built to protect them was breached, landowners in the Running Water Levee District met on Friday to decide how to pay for repairs to the levee. Lawrence County landowners met in Walnut Ridge following Randolph County's meeting in Pocahontas earlier in the day.

"We have to have a levee," said Lawrence County Judge Dale Freeman. "We just have to find a way to pay for it. The levee board has explored every option available to us and spoken with every agency they thought would be able to help with the cost of repairing the 13 holes in the levee."

The only option that would allow work to start immediately is adding a flat tax of $3.40 per acre to landowners in the levee district. This tax would be in addition to the 50 cents per acre they have been paying to maintain the levee.

Judge Freeman told the landowners attending the meeting that he works for them and wants to do what they think is best regarding repairs to the levee.

Qualified contractors have told the levee board that the total cost for repairing the levee will be $1,004,000, with additional cost anticipated bring the amount to be financed to $1,100,000.

If the fully planned loan/bond amount is financed, it will take a maximum of six years to repay. The $3.40 per acre tax will be lifted sooner if two grants the levee board is pursuing are received, or any other assistance can be obtained.

"The minute the debt is paid, the tax will come off the books," said levee commission member Andrew Jones of Minturn. "The tax will be assessed this year, and the increased payment on your taxes will begin next year."

"Even if we could pass a sales tax, it would take too long," said J.R. Cox of Walnut Ridge. "This is the quickest, way to get the money right now to fix the levee right now. The longer we wait, the more likely it is that we'll be flooded again."

Commissioner Jones added, "If the levee is not fixed, when you go to borrow money on anything, you will have to buy flood insurance to cover it. That will cost you more than this tax will."

"We have contractors who are waiting to begin the work," said Danny Ellis, also a levee board commissioner. "It will take 76 day to repair the levy, weather permitting. It's urgent that we get started."

While landowners weren't happy about having to pay the additional tax, they agreed there was no other option that would allow the levee to be repaired before another flood might hit the area. Judge Freeman asked for a show of hands of those who would agree the tax was what they wanted, and an overwhelming majority of hands were raised in agreement.

The levee district includes 19,777 acres in Randolph County and 42,196 acres in Lawrence County for a total of 61,973 acres protected by the levy.

The levee system was built in the late 1930s. It is eight miles long and runs southwest from Pocahontas toward Walnut Ridge. The levee broke in three places east of Pocahontas in March of 2008, causing some evacuations in Pocahontas. Randolph County employees repaired the levee that summer and the two counties formed the Running Water Levee District.

Randolph County Judge David Janson told Lawrence County landowners the Federal Emergency Management Agency would not help pay for repairs because the levee system is under the U.S. Corps of Engineers' auspices, and The Corps of Engineers won't fund repairs because it decommissioned the levee after years of neglect, making it ineligible to receive federal money.

He said he expects the levee system will be repaired by January.

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