Craighead County Judge Dale Haas called a press conference and community meeting Monday to discuss the proposed closing of the State Revenue Office in Lake City.
Earlier this month, state auditors presented a report on the efficiency of the State Department of Finance and Administration's 143 local revenue offices and recommended that 27 of them be closed because the cost of operating them exceeded the business generated. The offices recommended for closure, in Northeast Arkansas, included Lake City, Leachville, Rector, Imboden, and Parkin.
DF&A's Deputy Director Timothy Leathers reported that his agency would look at the recommendation and no offices would be closed without notice to the legislators from the affected areas. Legislative approval is not required to close the offices. State auditor Tim Thompson told legislators last Friday that each of the offices conducted fewer than 10,500 transactions in 2001 and are located in rural areas within 20 miles of larger offices.
"The Lake City office has been here since 1950," Haas said. "The office serves over 10,000 people each year. Mississippi County has four revenue offices, and losing one would still leave them with three. Clay County has three offices and they would be left with 2. Each of these counties have less population than we do.
"Let me dispel the rumor that if we lose the revenue office we will lose our courthouse," Haas said. "The revenue office is run by the state, and the court house is county."
Craighead County operates a dual courthouse system, with one office in Jonesboro and one in the eastern district at Lake City. The Lake City office is not a branch of the Jonesboro office.
Elected officials on hand for the press conference included State Senator Jerry Bookout, Haas, State Representatives Paul Bookout and Bill Gipson, Eastern District Quorum Court Justices, Charlie Smith and Duane Harvey, and city mayors, Norman Williams of Black Oak, Joe South of Caraway, Jerry Bowman of Lake City, and Quillion Vinson of Bay. Monette Mayor David Fletcher was unable to attend due to obligations at the Veteran's Administration office in Jonesboro.
"I got a call from a longtime friend of mine, Bill Hook, of Lake City who was very concerned about the closing of the office," Bookout said. "He explained that he thought this was a critical situation for the eastern district, and I agreed. There are no bridges between Marked Tree and Paragould, other than Lake City, for residents to go to Jonesboro. People here have as much right to access as anyone else in the state. Lake City is the neck of the funnel leading to Jonesboro."
"Efficiency is a big thing in government today," Senator Bookout said. "The government is not just a business but ought to operate for the people who pay for the government in the first place. We have gathered today to make a statement, that we want the Lake City office left open.
"I would hate for Governor Huckabee to come into this crowd today and try to close this office," Senator Bookout said to the people in the packed courtroom. "You're being here shows that this office is important to you. The government should not only be efficient, but responsible as well. There is justification for the office to remain here."
Auditors listed expanded technology for state services as part of the reason for the low number of transactions in area offices. Many transactions that had previously been done in person can now be done by mail, phone or the internet.
"When you get your driver's license, you have to come here in person," Rep. Gipson said.
"The large turnout today speaks volumes to me," Bookout said. "When I first heard about the possible closing, it made me mad. This service is the least that we can do for the people. We need to keep the office open."
Paul Bookout encouraged everyone present to sign the petitions opposing the closing of the Lake City office, at 119 Cobean Boulevard, Lake City.