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Little Rock board voices sales-tax doubts

Election decision expected in week by Joseph Flaherty | April 28, 2021 at 7:21 a.m.
FILE — Little Rock City Hall is shown in this 2019 file photo.

Support for a sales-tax increase proposed by Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. appeared to be weak among elected city directors based on comments made during Tuesday's meeting of the Little Rock Board of Directors.

Their remarks came one week ahead of an expected final vote on whether to send the package to voters in a referendum.

At various intervals during Tuesday's meeting, six city directors questioned or criticized elements of the current iteration of the sales-tax proposal.

Because the city's governing body must vote to refer the tax increase to the ballot for it to go into effect, opposition from six or more of the board's 10 members would block the package.

The mayor, who ordinarily does not cast a vote, has the power to break a tie in the event of a 5-5 deadlock.

Scott indicated Tuesday that the proposal will be retooled based on their feedback, but implored city directors to listen to the information that is being shared with them.

The proposed increase would permanently add one percentage-point to the city's sales-tax rate. However, because an existing three-eighths-cent sales tax is set to expire in December, the net increase to the city's sales-tax rate would be five-eighths of a cent (0.625).

The overall sales-tax rate for Little Rock consumers would increase to 9.625% beginning in January 2022 if voters approve the tax hike this summer.

Scott has asked city directors to set a July 13 special election for voters to authorize the increase.

Tuesday's special meeting served as the forum for the second reading of twin ordinances that together would call the summer election and levy the tax increase.

City Director Ken Richardson of Ward 2 asked city directors to suspend the rules and advance the measures to a third and final reading immediately, but his motions failed in voice votes.

Ordinances must receive three readings before city directors vote on them for final passage.

The twin ordinances, along with an accompanying resolution stating the uses of the new tax revenue, are scheduled to receive final consideration during a meeting next Tuesday.

Under the mayor's proposal, roughly $53 million in new annual revenue would pay for improvements to parks, the Little Rock Zoo, public-safety initiatives and infrastructure.

Early efforts by Scott last year to win a sales-tax increase were abandoned in March when the covid-19 outbreak upended plans. He resurrected the push for the sales-tax increase during his most recent State of the City broadcast March 25.

The most detailed comments to date from city directors on Scott's tax increase came during an agenda meeting held immediately after the special meeting Tuesday, but their remarks indicated shallow support for the proposal.

Vice Mayor Lance Hines criticized components of the plan and said he would not support the proposal without "tremendous amendments and some delineation on how the money's going to be spent."

Addressing at-large City Director Antwan Phillips, who at a recent meeting questioned why city directors had not responded to the proposal, Hines said "part of the way I was brought up, if you don't have anything good to say, you shouldn't say anything."

Hines added the silence from city directors "should've been deafening" for those in support of the sales tax.

He suggested that at first glance the parks and recreation, golf and fitness spending seemed warranted, but objected to the $30 million total capital investment for the Little Rock Zoo outlined in the plan, comparing the sum to seed money for previous city ventures.

Details on the spending for areas beyond parks and the zoo were "very nebulous," Hines said.

He criticized the early-childhood education initiatives contained in the plan, at one point saying city officials were out of their "lane" on what they could do with tax dollars on the issue during an exchange with the city's chief education officer, Jay Barth.

Responding to Hines, Scott defended the outreach efforts related to the tax increase. He said that "we know this package represents the will of the people, however, we also understand the checks and balances of the executive branch as well as the legislative branch."

City Director Kathy Webb of Ward 3 suggested officials have not experienced "the cohesive kind of outreach" that occurred when the last sales tax was presented years ago.

She brought up the estimated $37 million in federal funding the city expects to receive as a result of the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.

Though Webb acknowledged that the parameters for how the money can be spent are still unclear, she said constituents have asked about the federal funding.

The first half of the federal funding was expected May 10, Scott said, and the second half could arrive by the end of 2022.

At-large City Director Dean Kumpuris raised questions about how the expected federal funding will factor into the city's budget calculations.

"My worry is, why in the world are we doing this when we've got $37 million out there that we don't really know how we can spend it?" he said.

He also echoed Hines on including dedicated funding for community-oriented policing.

Additionally, Kumpuris suggested investing in what he described as promotion and protection of the downtown area along the river.

In response to Kumpuris, the mayor said "this proposal is to invest in the entire city, particularly to focus on areas that have been unserved and underserved, to ensure that we are paying attention to what's going on."

City Director Capi Peck of Ward 4 said the two main concerns from her constituents were public safety and infrastructure. She said that whether it is the perception or the reality of crime, residents are concerned about public safety.

Another element questioned by constituents was the lack of a sunset date for the tax increase, Peck said.

City Director B.J. Wyrick of Ward 7 likewise questioned the decision to make the proposed tax permanent.

Wyrick asked for greater detail on spending, explaining that if the mayor wants city directors to sell the tax to voters, "then we need specific details as to how this is going to happen."

At one point, at-large City Director Joan Adcock walked out of the meeting because of a quarrel with the mayor after Scott said information she shared about vacancies in the Police Department was inaccurate.

Adcock recently told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that she opposed the tax proposal at this time.

City Director Doris Wright of Ward 6 said she wanted to support the tax but could not in light of how the proposal was structured.

General statements of support for the plan could be heard from Phillips.

He emphasized that although he has said he supports the framework of the tax increase, he did not think the plan was perfect and as a result wanted to hear from fellow directors.

"There's no perfect plan," Phillips said.

Using the analogy of an all-star basketball team, Phillips posed the question to city directors about which member they would snub from inclusion on the team, referring to how additions to the plan would have to be offset by reductions in other areas unless city directors choose to raise the tax rate beyond one cent.

Approximately two hours into the agenda meeting, Scott indicated that feedback from city directors will be taken into consideration, though he expressed regret that their comments were coming one month after the package was unveiled March 25.

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