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JP looks at voting county ‘wet’

A Crawford County justice of the peace is looking to gain support on putting to a vote whether the county should stay “dry” or go “wet” by allowing packaged liquor sales.

District 13 JP Butch Barnes told Quorum Court members Monday night that he intends to start a petition to get the “wet-dry” issue on the ballot for the next general election in November 2014.

It was the second time Barnes spoke to fellow JPs about his plans, this time bringing with him the ballot title recently used by Benton County.

In the 2012 general election, voters passed an initiative to allow alcohol sales in Benton County. Barnes intends to use the same title on his petition for Crawford County, he said.

He said the issue of alcohol sales in the county has not been voted on since 1946. That is only 13 years after prohibition ended.

“There’s four generations of people who haven’t had a chance to vote on this issue,” Barnes said, adding that the youngest living person to last vote on the “wet-dry” issue would be 88 today.

Barnes pointed to tax revenue, loss of hospitality businesses such as restaurants and hotels, and job opportunities that he said were going to surrounding counties rather than to Crawford.

“We sit here guys, asleep in the 40s,” Barnes said.

County Judge John Hall thanked Barnes for his information, but told him there is no action for the quorum court to take until Barnes has his signed petition.

There are 28,864 registered voters in Crawford County, meaning that Barnes will need 12,000 signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

A special election would cost $35,000, so Barnes is working toward getting the issue on the ballot for next general election.

“[Alcohol] is the only item you can possess legally, consume legally but you cannot buy,” Barnes said.

Barnes knows there will be people against selling alcohol within county lines, he said.

“There’s a lot of people who won’t want to sell it and that’s fine; if you don’t want to sell it that’s your choice,” Barnes said.

Contention over the subject already began Monday night, with two new JPs speaking out against making Crawford a wet county.

District 1 JP Jason Cox began asked questions about drinking and driving arrests, and insinuated that making liquor legal to buy would increase the crime rate in Crawford County.

“Crawford County’s pretty much a clean place to live, and I want to keep it that way,” Cox said.

Cox pointed to Fort Smith as an example of his crime-alcohol correlation, calling the city “scummy.”

District 11 JP Carrie Jernigan also spoke against the measure after the meeting, pointing to statistics she claims show an increase in domestic abuse incidents in wet counties. Those statistics were not readily available before this article went to print.

Barnes feels the issue should to be put to a vote, he said.

“It deserves to be on the ballot where 28,000 people can decide, not just a handful,” Barnes said.

Also at the meeting Monday night, Hall announced that he, with Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman, have decided to move the election for the renewal of the existing 1 cent sales tax to February 2014.

The county-wide sales tax, with a half cent going to cities and the other half to the county, will sunset Aug. 1, 2014.

Because of conflicts with items that will be coming from the school district, Hall said it was decided that February would be a better time to renew the tax.

If the tax fails, they will still have 120 days to retry a vote on the tax, he said.

Hall also has plans to update county road standards in the near future, he said.

A new law passed by the Arkansas General Assembly restricts city’s planning jurisdiction from the previous five miles down to a maximum of three miles, depending on population.

For Crawford County, that means after one mile outside city limits, the county has jurisdiction, Hall said.

Since the county will be taking responsibility for new areas, Hall felt it is important that they revamp road standards, he said.

A special meeting will be set to discuss the issue, Hall said.