Tri-county RITA going for 'equal representation' vote

Members of the Faulkner County Quorum Court that attended a Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority (RITA) summit with the quorum courts of Conway and Perry counties on Friday expressed limited support, at best, for equal representation among the three counties.

Generally speaking, a RITA is a quasi-governmental body created under state law that has the power to enter into contracts, borrow money and access the bond market, and apply for state and federal grants in pursuit of intermodal cargo transport projects. 

The most commonly discussed project has been a riverport somewhere along the Arkansas River, where barges, for example, could unload cargo to be transported further via rail or road — or air, depending on where the port would be built. However, UCA economist Dr. Don Bradley, who has been a leader in pitching the idea of a RITA to the three counties, has cautioned that there is no specific project identified for study at this time.

Conway and Perry counties, their respective county judges Jimmy Hart and Baylor House said, were firm on participating only if they have equal representation on any RITA committee that would be created. Faulkner County’s Quorum Court Road Committee had proposed having five seats at the committee for Faulkner County and two each for Conway and Perry Counties.

Hart and House said that “straw votes” among their respective quorum courts show that such unequal representation will not find favor among their JPs.

Faulkner County JPs Chris Bills, Johnny Brady, Steve Goode, Randy Higgins, John Pickett and Dan Thessing were at the meeting. Goode, who heads the road committee, said that in his estimation the RITA proposal would never have gotten out of his committee if the other two counties had equal representation. 

Conway and Perry counties do not have as large a tax base as Faulkner County, mostly because of the city of Conway. However, the lower tax base also means that Conway and Perry counties have access to federal and state grants that Faulkner County doesn’t. The main purpose of a RITA, Bradley explained at the summit, is to pool the lobbying power and natural resources of three counties in what he said was analogous to a private development corporation. 

The plan does not call for a RITA tapping any local tax money, but rather being self-funded through investments and grants and governmental loans and bonds. Before any of the three counties can know exactly what might be available to a tri-county RITA, Bradley has said, a RITA must be formed as an exploratory first step.

Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson, speaking as to concerns he’s heard and not necessarily his own opinion (“I don’t have a vote in this,” he said) said that a concern he’s heard is uneasiness that “an exclusive and elite group [would be] looking out for the interests of private business instead of the will and good of the people.” Dodson and Jim Baker, who will succeed him as county judge, both said that another argument against a RITA involves unease at creating “another layer of government.” Baker agreed with Bradley that a RITA is more analogous of a private corporation and “economic development tool” than a “layer of government.”

Bills, a Faulkner County JP, expressed concern about creating a RITA body that would act without “legislative oversight” or accountability to the citizens of the counties.

Language was added to the proposed RITA contract allowing any RITA committee member to be removed at the pleasure of their county judge (they are also appointed by county judges and operate under a county’s executive branch). Also, any quorum court that votes to join a RITA can vote to leave it. Also, the RITA’s state-granted authority to exercise eminent domain power to take land necessary for important development and have a court decide fair market value after the fact is expressly denied this tri-county RITA in the proposed contract.

Bill Ruck, Garver Engineers senior project manager, said that in his experience working with other RITAs, decisions are made as part of a collaboration with local business, political and technical interests, and not “in a little room” with everyone else being handed down edicts from a RITA.

Charles Nabholz, chairman emeritus of Conway-based Nabholz Construction Company, spoke briefly to say that the Conway Development Corporation supported a RITA. 

County judges Hart and House proposed representation by 4 members of each county. Faulkner County’s JPs expressed neither strong support nor strong opposition, with Faulkner County JP Brady saying he would be more satisfied with three members from each county. A Conway County JP then proposed five members from each county.

Bradley said that he would draft a new contract providing for equal representation among the three counties and let the Faulkner County Quorum Court decide on a number for themselves.

The matter will likely be referred back to the county road committee, Dodson said, but he will accept input from all JPs on what the next step should be.

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