August 17, 2016 Edition

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WR fire fee removed,
rebates to be offered

Megan Heyl
Staff Writer

After a Freedom of Information Act request came to Walnut Ridge for information regarding what was being labeled as a potential unlawful fire protection tax, the Walnut Ridge City Council voted to remove the fire protection fee from the water bills at Monday night's meeting.

Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp said this issue first came to his attention Thursday morning upon receiving a fax from Mark Rees Law Firm out of Jonesboro. The fax, addressed to both Snapp and City Water Works Manager Jon Kopp, requested all paperwork related to the passing of a fire protection tax.

Previously thought of as a fee, Snapp said the research shows that this could be an illegal exaction, a demand of a fee for an official service performed in the normal course of duty. It could also be determined as an illegal tax as it was not approved by the people through an election.

In fact, this potential tax was established in 1955 by ordinance of the city council as a 25 cents a month fee. Over the years, the fee was increased by the city council on multiple occasions, according to Snapp, including once while he was an alderman.

The fee currently stands at $3 monthly for residential meters, $2.50 for commercial meters and $10 to $30 for industrial meters. This fee made up 15-20 percent of the fire department budget amounting to about $80,000.

Determining how to offset the lost revenue will be explored as there are a number of options, including enacting a millage tax, offering a voluntary fee or putting the fee to a vote.

"I will not let the fire department suffer," Snapp said, explaining that while figuring out how to recover from the loss of the fee, the fire department will be supported by the city.

Snapp said if the budget goes down, the quality of the department would go down potentially causing a poorer Insurance Services Office rating, which would lead to higher cost for home insurance in Walnut Ridge.

While there is no lawsuit and no sign of this going to court, City Attorney Nancy Hall said she was pleased with the council's decision.

"I truly believe that if it goes to court, it would be an illegal exaction," Hall said.

Citizens to be
offered rebates

The council also voted to allow Snapp and Hall to work with the Arkansas Municipal League to determine a way to offer rebates to Walnut Ridge citizens who have been paying the fee.

With a statute of limitations of three years, anybody who paid on a Walnut Ridge meter in the past three years may be entitled to a rebate of up to $108 per residential meter and $90 per commercial meter with industrial meters varying.

These rebates could cost the city up to $250,000. Snapp said the money is available to cover the rebates, but it will likely postpone projects such as adding another ballpark and some paving planned for next year.

Hall explained there are rules in place such as the voluntary payment rule that states if a person voluntarily pays with full knowledge or access to full knowledge of the facts, then they have no claims to get that money back. However she and Snapp both were pleased that the council voted to offer the rebates.

Snapp added that after reading through Hall's legal review on the fire fee ordinance, he knew it had to be repealed.

"I had no doubt the council would see the same thing and make the right decision and I'm pleased they did. Fair, firm and consistent local government will pay off in the long run. Our current council members should be commended," Snapp said.

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