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County Judges, JPs plan meeting to hash out RITA agreement

Posted: June 25, 2014 - 3:36pm

County judges and representatives from their quorum courts will meet next month to try and negotiate a intermodal transportation partnership agreement that Faulkner, Conway and Perry counties can live with.

The meeting will be at 1:30 p.m. on July 11 at the University of Central Arkansas College of Business. 

A Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority (RITA) is a quasi-governmental body that has authority under Arkansas law to pursue and oversee commercial (as opposed to passenger) road, rail, air and water transportation projects. By combining the three counties’ interests in attracting business and infrastructure projects as a region, it is expected, the region can have more political influence to attract state and/or federal money for projects that involve intermodal transportation.

Allen Dodson, Jimmy Hart and Baylor House, county judges of Faulkner, Conway and Perry counties, respectively, met with business leaders at the University of Arkansas on Wednesday to talk about changes to the proposed RITA agreement meant to address concerns.

Jim Baker, who will take over as Faulkner County Judge next year, said that he would put the formation of a RITA “at number one on my agenda” at the meeting, and Charles Nabholz, chairman emeritus of Nabholz construction, said that the risk, if there is any, “is worth taking” for “a golden opportunity for growth in central Arkansas.” 

Dodson said after the meeting that, at the least, a RITA would be a good means to try and capture regional-scale projects that might come along in the future that might otherwise go to a region with a unified structure to handle it. Also, as the board members are unpaid, there is little expense to the counties, Dodson said. 

Several members of the Faulkner County quorum court have expressed reservations about creating a governing body with powers that could be beyond the control of the counties that create it. As originally proposed, a tri-county RITA would have some powers of a county or municipal government, including the powers to levy taxes or take property under the legal doctrine of eminent domain.

The agreement’s new language says that “[n]othing in this agreement shall authorize the Authority … to levy any taxes … [or] exercise eminent domain authority.”

Also, as proposed now, members of the RITA’s board of directors would serve at the pleasure of their county judge, who can remove them “for cause or for any other reason.” 

The board would be made up of five members appointed by the Faulkner County Judge and two members each from Conway and Perry counties. This is “in recognition of [Faulkner County’s greater population and to provide an uneven total number of members in order to avoid potential tie votes,” according to a handout provided at the meeting on Wednesday. Any action would require one “yes” vote from each of the three counties regardless of overall majority.

Perry and Conway County’s judges both said at the meeting that they wanted equal representation on the board for their counties, and this will likely be the basis of negotiations on the meeting on the 11th. 

There has been much talk about a river port associated with plans for a tri-county RITA. Dr. Don Bradley has done research about the feasibility of a river port, but has cautioned that no projects are attached to the idea of a RITA at any official level.

The Conway Chamber of Commerce and Conway Development Corporation have endorsed the idea of a RITA, but have also said they do not endorse a river port without an independent third-party feasibility study. 

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