TEXARKANA, Ark. — The lawyer who filed a civil suit in Miller County regarding parity pay for Arkansas-side police officers said he is prepared to go forward with the case despite recent action by the city's board of directors.
Texarkana lawyer Brent Langdon filed suit in December 2017 on behalf of more than 80 Arkansas-side residents. It contends that money generated through a sales and use tax imposed by voters, through city ordinances in 1995 and 1996, isn't being used for its intended purpose — to keep salaries of police and fire personnel in Texarkana, Arkansas, on par with those in its sister city.
A response and counterclaim filed on behalf of the defendants — former Mayor Ruth Penney Bell and the board members serving at the time — denied any fiscal mismanagement and argued that the ordinances are unconstitutional because they take the power to set salaries for police and fire personnel away from the board of directors and give it to the voters and/or the city of Texarkana, Texas.
The tax brings in about $2 million annually.
At the end of a hearing to address the issue of constitutionality this summer, Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson urged the two sides to work toward an agreement that would make a ruling on the issue unnecessary. Had Johnson found the ordinances violate the Arkansas Constitution by taking the power to set police salaries away from the city's board and giving it to Texarkana, Texas, it would have meant the tax could no longer be collected. That would have left the city with a $2 million reduction in annual funds.
To remedy the constitutional problems with the ordinances, the city recently passed measures amending the ordinances that restore the power to set police salaries to the city board. The ordinances dictate that the funds collected from the tax will be used to fund police and fire personnel salaries, provide a formula for determining if pay raises are actually possible from the available funds and establishes a system for attempting to keep police and fire salaries competitive with other departments in the region. The ordinances do not require that parity between Texarkana, Texas, and Texarkana, Ark., be maintained.
After the passages of the amended ordinances, Hot Springs lawyer Ralph Ohm filed a motion on behalf of the defendants to withdraw its claim that the ordinances are unconstitutional, leaving only the plaintiffs' claims to be resolved.
Langdon said he still believes a court order will benefit Texarkana, Arkansas, police and that he has no intention of seeking to non-suit or dismiss the case.
"My clients' sole purpose has been to assure that the special sales taxes approved by voters in 1996 and collected ever since by the city were used to assure continued law enforcement protection by maintaining competitive base pay. During the July 1st hearing before Judge Johnson, the City's attorney asked that the judge rule that the vote of the people be declared unconstitutional, which would cost the city over two million dollars per year. A few weeks later, the city's position has flipped. The Arkansas side police parity pay issue has not been resolved with the court. If the city now has resolved to keep all the money collected through the tax and to assure the citizens of law enforcement protection by maintaining competitive pay for the police department, both sides should want those assurances confirmed by court order to avoid another flip by this or another board in the future," Langdon said.
No hearings are scheduled in the case.