Sales tax question on Inola ballot

Mar. 30—Voters in Inola will decide on Tuesday if they are going to raise their local sales tax 1.5%, from 3% to 4.5%. It will take a 60% "yes" vote to pass.

Proponents of the tax increase say it could impact whether residents will have to pay higher water and sewer rates soon.

Infrastructure is the No. 1 concern for city leaders and community supporters. Inola has a population of less than 2,000, while the surrounding town zip code area has 6,734 residents.

Town Administrator Scott Devers and Chamber President Nick Peery, both proponents of the tax increase, agree. Donnie Chasteen, another former Chamber president who says he is not committed to a vote on the tax, agrees fixing the town's water and sewer system is a priority.

"Inola is getting ready to go through a lot of change in the next seven years," Devers said. "It is going to take nearly $30 million to bring the water and sewer systems up to standard in preparation for that change."

Peery said the city is facing some major infrastructure updating needs.

"A lot of water and sewer was installed in the '60s and '70s. It is outdated, and to bring it up to standards will cost around $28 million," Peery said.

Current and ongoing business building activity at the Port of Inola, which is in the town limits, is expected to be a major source for collecting

"It could be one-time gift [for the small town]," Devers said. "We only get sales tax when [new businesses] are under construction, only when they are building a building and putting in new equipment. Over next 10 years, we should generate enough sales tax to replace our entire infrastructure and not have to raise water and sewer rates."

Inola currently has the lowest sales tax rate in the county. Devers said that low rate falls below the state average of 4% and is costing them "points" on grant applications, which could bring other much-needed funds into the town's coffers.

In addition to the building and construction ongoing at the Port of Inola, Devers said, planned changes to convert 412 to an interstate could cut off and possibly put out of business a major contributor to the town's tax revenue. Right now, the town capitalizes on the Tulsa to Northwest Arkansas traffic along 412.

"It generates a lot of our sales tax," Devers said. "If Inola wants to continue to be Inola, to have our independence we have to be prepared for that ... If Inola does not step up and become what they want to be, we will be the New Tulsa."

He was alluding to another small township near Tulsa that was overrun by surrounding development.

Devers said the proposed bridge at 71st Street, which would give direct access to and from the Port to neighboring Broken Arrow, is another example of outside growth touching Inola.

"He said he hears the old-timers in Inola saying we can't stop this, but we want and need to get engaged and figure this out. It is going to change, whether we like it or not," Devers said.

Peery, who works at the local BancFirst, agrees.

Chasteen also agrees the town must move forward; however, he wants to see more "accountability" and "common sense" applied to spending decisions. Talk of spending more money to increase the size of the town's police force is not a high priority for him.

"Our sewer system is falling apart. We have parts running through dirt caverns in the ground ... at some point, sewer system is going to fail," Chasteen said.

The insurance sales agent says fire protection services need to be addressed, he added.

"Right now, our fire department is volunteers," he said.

Chasteen said the town has to be more builder-friendly to attract housing development, which can attract the necessary workforce for new businesses coming to the local port. Those new homes will also be a boon to the local school district through an increase in home values and ad valorem tax support, he said.

"It is all about helping our community," he said.