I look at the higher sales-tax rates in other cities across Arkansas. I examine the needs in Little Rock and contemplate how important it is for the entire state that its largest city do well.
As a resident of Little Rock for the past 30 years, I'm inclined to support the 1 percent sales tax that Mayor Frank Scott Jr. began pushing last week during his State of the City address. There are, however, a couple of caveats that this former campaign manager and political reporter must articulate.
First, city officials must clearly spell out how every penny of a tax that's expected to produce $50 million a year will be spent. The era of "trust us" has ended. Voters want to know exactly how their money will be used.
Second, the goal of this spending should be to attract private capital investment to Little Rock's residential neighborhoods and business corridors. There's a temptation among young, idealistic politicians like Scott to try to do everything at once. Given the many needs of the city, Scott must guard against spreading himself and others at City Hall too thin while moving into areas (think public education) that aren't the purview of municipal government. Little Rock, which has been stagnant from a population standpoint for years, badly needs private investment--from homeowners who will renovate houses in the city's hollowed-out core (and begin paying property taxes on those properties) to business owners who will spark infill development.
Too many Little Rock residents expect governmental entities, acting alone, to spur growth. Growth comes from the private sector. If city government can set the stage for the investment of private dollars in neighborhoods, life will improve for the residents of those neighborhoods.
One of the things that excited me when Scott was elected was his ability to convince the various factions in an often divided city to work together. As the city's first popularly elected black mayor, he could attract minority support. He was just 35 when elected, meaning he could get young people involved in improving Little Rock. As a pastor, he had a leg up when it came to gaining the trust of evangelicals who are so often distrustful of city government. As a banker, he also could secure the trust of the city's business sector, which still is made up, for the most part, of older white males.
Any new mayor is going to make mistakes, and Scott made a doozy last year when he inserted himself into the case of Charles Starks, the white Little Rock police officer involved in the shooting of a black man. Most reviews of the case have concluded that the officer-involved shooting was justified. Starks was reinstated by the courts after being fired. Scott let his emotions get the best of him by acting so hastily. In the process, he lost the support of key segments of the business community.
When he was running for office in 2018, Scott said he wanted to add 10 additional officers to the Little Rock Police Department each year. The first thing a new sales tax should do is make significant increases in the number of officers possible. If those supporting this tax increase don't make crime reduction the foremost element of their spending plan, they're going to lose. It's that simple.
It's not just the actual crimes that discourage private investment. It's also the perception of crime. Much of the state is part of the Little Rock television market. Night after night, Arkansans are bombarded with crime as the lead story on the 10 p.m. news. Remember that old line about perception becoming reality? If Scott doesn't tackle crime reduction first, he can forget about the other nice-sounding things like zoo expansion, indoor sports complex, senior center and soccer fields.
Let's have those new officers walking the streets downtown and in nearby neighborhoods. These will be old-fashioned beat cops. Not only will they develop close relationships with business owners and residents, the sight of those officers on the streets will give confidence to people investing in homes and businesses. You see, it comes back to outside capital investment.
A city rots from the inside out. There are good things happening downtown--the hip AC by Marriott Hotel, what promises to be a spectacular renovation of the Arkansas Arts Center, a new marina on the Arkansas River, etc. But that pales in comparison with the billions of dollars being invested just two hours away in downtown Memphis--a place with the same crime and school problems as Little Rock. One can't help but think that downtown Little Rock should be doing even better during this era of urbanization.
The same goes for neighborhoods near the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. UAMS and UALR should be the capital city's two primary economic engines, but instead have been systematically starved by the rural-dominated Arkansas Legislature.
"I've seen our police department working diligently to build more connections with the communities it serves," Scott said in his State of the City address. "Events such as Coffee with a Cop, Pizza with the Police, National Night Out and expanded neighborhood crime watch programs are the type of interactions needed to get us to a better state of police relations and reduce our crime rate. ... Our goal of making Little Rock the safest city in the South is not far-fetched."
When we see the detailed plan for how that $50 million a year will be spent, we'll know if Scott is serious or if it's just political rhetoric.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 02/08/2020