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Little Rock board hears concerns over proposed layoffs, delays budget-cut vote

Parks would take brunt of $2.1M reduction, say residents by Rachel Herzog | May 15, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.
FILE — Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott is shown at the state Capitol in Little Rock.

The Little Rock Board of Directors voted Tuesday to delay a decision on amending the city's budget for at least two more weeks, after nearly two and a half hours of discussion about the latest proposal to reduce the city's expenditures by about $2.1 million for the remainder of 2019.

The steepest cuts in the latest proposal from Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and the city's Finance Department are to the Parks and Recreation Department, which drove much of Tuesday's debate.

The proposal that city directors considered Tuesday is a revision of the gentler of two proposals that Scott first brought to the board last week, created based on feedback from the board. It would have an annual impact of about $5 million, about $300,000 less than the reduction in annual expenditures that Scott initially recommended, and about $2.4 million less annually than another proposal he floated.

The proposed amendment to the 2019 budget includes eliminating 21 positions in the Parks and Recreation Department, eight of which are currently open. Combined with other spending reductions in the department, the layoffs would save an estimated $723,262 annually, according to a presentation from the Finance Department.

That number factors in the money the city would spend to outsource some maintenance work, such as the mowing of small parks and community centers and custodial jobs in some community centers, to contractors. The estimated cost of outsourcing is $460,000.

Several residents and city employees spoke in opposition to the proposed cuts out of concern for the quality of the parks or for the people who would be laid off.

Clarence Elliott, president of the Little Rock chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the union was concerned about the city laying off members of maintenance crews while supervisors remained.

"Who are the managers going to manage?" Elliott asked. "We know that the budget is a budget, but at the same time, with this budget, we're concerned about the layoffs of the lower class."

Another union representative, Public Works Department employee John Ball, said the Parks and Recreation Department was already "woefully understaffed."

"As a public works worker, I can already tell you how bare-boned some of these departments are," Ball said. "Looking at your budget, there's a lot of bare bones here."

The proposed cuts to parks staff were the subject of Monday night's Hillcrest Residents Association annual open membership meeting, resident Luke Kramer said. People were alarmed at the number of positions to be cut and if it would affect the quality of the parks, he said.

"Will these treasures fall into a state of disarray and become undesirable? Will the grass be mowed, the trash collected? ... Many residents remember the 1970s, when these things were not done and these parks were not enjoyed the way they are today. Hopefully there are other areas of the city budget that can be tightened," Kramer said.

Parks and Recreation Director John Eckart explained how he helped make the budget recommendation and fielded questions from city directors. He said outsourcing maintenance work would allow the city savings and flexibility. He said the city greenhouse would stay in operation and that most of the cuts would be to the department's construction division.

"Throughout this process, we really had to focus on core services and as a result of that, we did make some decisions to bring for you that really focused on what we could do to maintain our service levels," Eckart said.

Ball later told an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter that he "100 percent" disagreed with Eckart's statement that outsourcing would reduce costs while maintaining quality. Contractors try to make profits, he said. Multiple parks employees who attended the meeting shared the sentiment; some shook their heads while Eckart addressed the board.

Other city departments that would see six-figure budget cuts under the proposal include the city attorney's office, the Housing and Neighborhood Programs Department and golf. Additionally, the positions of the assistant city manager and an administrative assistant would be eliminated upon James Jones' retirement in June, which reflects a shift in duties from the city manager to the mayor that Scott implemented in January.

Scott has a senior adviser and an executive assistant, and said he plans to hire a chief of staff. Former Mayor Mark Stodola also had two assistants and a chief of staff.

Scott has a part-time employee for communications and a part-time employee for scheduling, Finance Director Sara Lenehan told the board. She did not provide specific numbers on costs but said the part-time employees have not yet accumulated "substantial expense."

The city's annual contract with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce would decrease one-third, by $100,000.

Jay Chesshir, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said the region suffered when the city stopped its payments to the chamber a few years ago, and the proposed cut would sacrifice "long-term solutions and growth."

"While we appreciate that tough choices will need to be made to bring the budget into balance, Little Rock is proposing a move backward. A thriving economy is the only true long-term solution," he said.

After a brief recess, Ward 2 City Director Ken Richardson moved to have the board vote on the proposed amendment. The motion failed. Kathy Webb of Ward 3 moved to table the measure for two weeks, given the ongoing questions.

Scott urged directors not to delay the decision.

"Tabling it for two weeks does not stop the impending deficit that we have today and definitely creates time issues with our staff and how long they would have to react," Scott said.

Still, the motion to delay passed 7 to 3, with Ward 1 City Director Erma Hendrix, Richardson and At-large City Director Dean Kumpuris voting not to delay.

After the meeting adjourned, Webb said she was still concerned about the proposed cuts to parks, as well as the Housing and Neighborhood Programs Department.

"Cuts are not easy, and I will support some cuts," she said, but added that she was unsure those departments could maintain the same level of services if cut.

She said she planned to look at other possible changes and see how Little Rock's budget compares to other similarly sized cities.

Scott said he planned to continue to work with the board to "help them understand" that the proposal is "the most realistic and reasonable plan." He acknowledged that the decisions were difficult and at times emotional, but said he was prioritizing public safety and fiscal responsibility.

The budget amendment does not include funding for new initiatives. Scott has proposed hiring 100 additional police officers and purchasing body-worn cameras. He said he was "holding off" on hiring additional police officers this year. A request for proposals for cameras has been issued, and Lenehan said the city may seek grant funding for the devices.

Metro on 05/15/2019

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