In 1997 the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 690 — The Regional Intermodal Facilities Act, commonly known as RITA. Intermodal means more than one mode of interconnected movement of freight, commerce or passengers. There are two items currently before the Faulkner County Quorum Court based on this Act. The first is an “Agreement for the Formation of the Central Arkansas Intermodal Authority.” The second is an ordinance authorizing the County Judge and County Clerk to execute the Agreement on behalf of Faulkner County. Both items are being considered by the Roads Committee (Chaired by Mr. Steve Goode, JP District 3).
The first item is referred to as the “agreement” and is the more important of the two. It sets out the membership of the governing board, the officers, purposes, powers and duties, finances, and other miscellaneous items.
When considering the Agreement, the Quorum Court should first address the threshold question to determine if the formation of RITA is in the public interest. Specifically to ask and answer the question ‘Is there a public need for another government entity?’ A number of presentations have been made during the past months. When this question is asked, the answer is crouched as “a vision for the future.” When the follow-up question asks for specifics, rambling statements include excursion boats on the river, compressed natural gas station, transshipment point for agriculture and timber products, and the most peculiar assertion is for another railroad bridge across the river.
If there had been a need for another bridge, the railroads would have built one a long time ago. Furthermore, when asked if any economic feasibility study had been made for another bridge or any other activity, a UCA professor promoting another bridge answered ‘no’. Dreamtime appears to run rampant.
The proposed Authority would engage in preparing master industrial development site plans. This would include rail and highway access improvements, water and sewer lines, development of industrial sites, environmental assessments, and associated activities. Railroads develop their own access points, the highway commission and county road departments construct road access, municipal and regional water authorities provide water, and all three counties prepare industrial development plans using existing planning agencies.
The proposed Agreement creates a 13 member board with four members appointed by the county judges in each of Perry and Conway counties and five members appointed by the Faulkner County judge. County representation on the proposed board does not represent the proportionate size of the three counties as measured by per capita income, median household income, median family income, population, number of households, or county income. Recent estimates show that the population of Perry County has declined since 2010. Whatever mix of the population and economic activity is selected, Faulkner County is larger than both Perry and Conway Counties combined. The consequence of the proposed board is that unless Faulkner County representatives are a majority on the Board, the two smaller counties may dominate the business interests and economic growth of Faulkner County.
A recent addition to the proposed Agreement stipulates that any action by the board must receive at least one affirmative vote from the representative of each county. If a board majority votes in favor of a motion and all members of one county vote against the motion, then the motion fails. Majority rule does not apply to the Board’s votes.
The Authority will have the power of eminent domain on most land in the three counties.
The county judges make the appointments to the governing board. It is clear why the proponents of the Authority expand the executive authority of the county judges. A more democratic alternative is for the quorum courts to make the appointments. Surely, the diversity and experience of the quorum court members can select qualified members of the board.
No one knows the future course of Faulkner County’s finances. The proposed Authority makes it difficult, even impossible, for the County to withdraw from the agreement once it joins. The conditions of a County’s withdrawal must be clearly permitted with no financial penalty imposed on the taxpayers.
How will this new government agency obtain its initial financing is the final question. It is not answered. Casual comments allude to Senator Rapert directing “general improvement fund” money to the agency for start-up financing. No specifics are available. Furthermore, Rapert’s elected position has a limited life, and it is most likely that the start-up period will be lengthy at best, requiring tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars. Rapert’s improvement fund money might be better used by directing it to UCA or to other government agencies in his district.
Absent any specifics, the Faulkner County Quorum Court faces what the first President Bush called “this vision thing.” Once established, it will be another costly government agency that has no permanent source of funding except from taxpayers.
Pickett is a JP representing District 7. He is a long time resident of Faulkner County and an emeritus professor of economics at UALR. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org