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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Investing in Little Rock

by John Brummett | April 27, 2021 at 3:01 a.m.

Come on, now. Let's not fall for any sinister derision that Mayor Frank Scott wants to raise the Little Rock city sales tax for a "$20 million giraffe."

I've heard that. It's not correct. It merely is close enough to the left-field foul line to be ripe for exploitation and dangerous to fair and rational thought.

The mayor's embattled spending plan for the proposed tax designates 9 percent of the money to a task force's recommendations for the zoo.

Those recommendations are designed to enhance the zoo as a regional destination and save its accreditation, always an issue with maintenance and capital improvement deferred. The tax would provide new operating revenue and build more family-friendly modern exhibits.

Yes, $20 million would construct an interactive habitat featuring a new giraffe that would allow children to get close. The cost is for the full exhibit. A perfectly fine giraffe is not inexpensive as animals go, but can be had for a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of that.

Here is Scott making his case: "The new generation tends to choose a place for quality of life and amenities, then find work there. It's not the old model to find work first and settle wherever the work is. And the older generation tends to be retired and maybe downsizing and looking for local amenities. That's a perfect combination of generational interests, and it's a dynamic that modern growing cities have to respond to."

It's no longer the 1990s model, he says, of simply raising taxes for the basics--streets, curbs, gutters, police and fire--though, he rushes to stipulate, those things are important and there is plenty of money in his plan for those.

Let's not get it started that he wants to "defund the police" to bring to town a "$20 million giraffe." He wants to fund the police more, but he also wants to spend heavily on long-neglected parks, including two golf course conversions.

He also wants to spend on universal pre-K and affordable housing because, as he puts it, "we can't arrest our way out of the problem."

A few Southern cities once Little Rock's size have risen out of our league because, in Scott's view, they had visionary leadership that invested in the future. That's what he wants to do for Little Rock--catch us up so we can try to move ahead.

Universal pre-K to augment the new full-service community schools--that seems to excite the mayor for reasons I get. And he says one way to boost Little Rock is for families around the state to come to the state's only zoo rather than visit more updated ones in Memphis or Tulsa.

Little Rock doesn't have Walton heirs making it fancy. The people must ante up.

The city board has been a disagreeable partner of the mayor from the beginning, for reasons ranging from natural philosophical or generational differences to resentment of a more empowered mayor's position and hangovers from vigorous battles in the mayor's race.

Ideas for revision of Scott's plan are circulating among city board members. Nearly all of those reduce, but do not eliminate, proposed zoo projects. They protect the proposed new spending on parks, including the remaking of War Memorial and Hindman. But they redirect other funds toward tradition, spending more on police staffing and firefighting equipment and streets, curbs and gutters.

A view on the city board and probably in some of the public is that a modernized and child-friendly zoo would be nice but can't come until we have more cops and fewer potholes and less flooding.

Scott's view is that those things are important and are in his proposal, but that, in 2021, we need a blend of brick, mortar, park and zoo amenities, public safety, education and housing.

It is right for the city board to pressure the mayor to sell his plan and decline to buy if he can't make the case. But it's not right for the city board to cling exclusively to old and narrow notions.

None of this matters if nothing passes.

Here's a thought, and merely that, only to be considered should the mayor and city board break down on the elements of a single package: Just as I've lamented these omnibus federal bills that put too many pieces together and complicate single issues, the city might break the tax proposal into, say, three parts--basic infrastructure, public safety and parks/golf course conversion as one; pre-K and housing as another, then zoo, with a separate tax levy and ballot item for each.

I mentioned that to the mayor and he said, off the top of his head, that the need was for a cohesive, multi- element single package, and that dividing the issues would pit one vital part against another.

That's probably so. It was just a thought.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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