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LINCOLN -- Registered voters in Lincoln will consider a local question on the Nov. 3 general election ballot on whether to approve a new 1% sales tax to help fund the police and fire departments.

Early voting opens Monday, Oct. 19 and runs through Monday, Nov. 2. Early voting centers include the Quorum Courtroom in Fayetteville and Prairie Grove Fire Department.

Lincoln Community Building will be open as an early voting location for two days only, Oct. 29-30.

Lincoln City Council unanimously voted to call a special election to ask voters to approve a 1% sales tax at its July 21 meeting. In the same meeting, the council approved an ordinance to levy the new sales tax, if approved by voters.

The special election ballot asks voters to vote For or Against the "adoption of a 1% local sales and use tax for police and fire departments within the city of Lincoln."

If voters approve the sales tax, businesses would start collecting it in January and the city would probably receive its first receipts in April, according to City Attorney Steve Zega.

The city of Lincoln currently has a 2% sales tax rate. Of this, 1% goes to capital improvements, 0.375% goes to parks and the library and 0.625% goes to the library construction bond issue.

Mayor Doug Hutchens said he's heard positive comments about the request out in the community and is "optimistic the city of Lincoln will support the fire department and police force moving forward."

The covid-19 pandemic has hampered the city's efforts to explain the sales tax and provide information to city's residents. Because of the coronavirus, the city has not been able to host town hall meetings or meet with groups, such as the Chamber, Kiwanis Club or churches, Hutchens said.

Instead, city officials and others are using word-of-mouth to tell people about the need for the tax. Information also will be available on the city's website, he said.

Hutchens estimates a 1% sales tax would generate about $22,000-$23,000 per month. He said it's still an unknown how covid-19 will affect revenues in the future, but so far, sales tax revenue has been up, compared to last year.

The city decided to recommend a new sales tax for police and fire because it "really is the only fair tax that spreads the burden out over the whole area the police and fire (departments) are serving," Hutchens said, noting there are times the fire and police assist outside the city limits.

The 1% sales tax would be paid by anyone making taxable purchases in the city limits, versus a property tax increase that would impact only those with property inside the city limits, Hutchens said.

The election ballot question is written so that revenue from the new tax would be dedicated solely to police and fire and the money cannot be used for anything else. City officials earlier this year said the city would set up a separate account for those tax revenues.

If approved, the money would be used to hire a new fire chief and to hire at least one new police officer, with the goal to add two new positions.

Jay Norton, fire administrator, will retire at the end of the year and his position will have to be filled. The city hopes to fill that vacancy as a fire chief/fire administrator position. Presently, Willie Leming of Lincoln serves as a volunteer fire chief.

The city's Police and Fire Committee decided last week to go ahead and advertise the chief's position to see what kind of interest is out there. Hutchens said no decisions can be made until after the sales tax election.

"The sales tax result is what will set the salary for a new fire chief," Hutchens said.

Norton said he agrees with making the chief's position a full-time, paid position because it would allow the fire chief to be a hands-on leader.

"From the fire side, it's going to be very important that this passes," Norton said. "We need someone to come in who is a good motivator and can motivate volunteers, and that's really tough these days."

If the sales tax does not pass, Norton said the city will have to come up with a Plan B on what to do with his position.

Lincoln Police Chief Kenneth Albright said a 1% sales tax hopefully would give him the ability to hire two new officers by the end of 2021. A new officer without any experience or training makes in the low $30,000s in Lincoln, according to Albright.

"The need is there because there's not enough coverage sometimes," Albright said.

The department has six officers, including the chief's position, and at times only one person is covering a shift when other time constraints are taken into consideration, Albright said. These include officers gone to court, on sick leave or vacation leave.

"I really hope people understand we appreciate the support we've gotten from the town and the citizens, and we're asking them to get out and support us one more time," Albright said. "I just really hope it passes because there's a definite need out there."

Like Hutchens, Albright said using a sales tax to generate revenue means that people coming through Lincoln will also help fund the city's police and fire departments.

He noted that Lincoln, like the rest of western Washington County, is growing and has more traffic.

"It's the fairest way. Everyone who is potentially using the services is helping pay for them," Albright added.

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