Ward 4 crowd airs concerns on sales taxes

LR mayor’s proposal topic of first public input session

FILE — Little Rock City Hall is shown in this 2019 file photo.

Residents of Ward 4 in the city of Little Rock voiced concerns about Mayor Frank Scott Jr.'s potential sales-tax referendum during a community meeting at Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock on Monday.

Based on the timeline, city board members might convene on Aug. 31 or Sept. 1 for a vote on whether to call the election, Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said.

On July 27, Scott laid out a proposal to add 1 percentage point to the local sales-tax rate for 10 years, though he later indicated the proposal could be revised to make the tax permanent.

Under his plan, the city would spend a total of $600 million on various capital improvements and new operating expenses over the 10-year period.

Degan Boone, a professional disc jockey and music promoter, suggested at the meeting that voters instead should push for a payroll tax on workers who commute from Bryant, Benton, Cabot, Conway and other suburbs outside Little Rock.

Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore said that under current Arkansas state law, a payroll tax would have to apply to city residents as well, and he does not see this as something voters would approve.

Boone and other residents at the meeting said that voters could change this law at some point.

"I think if people can make their livelihood and invest in their culture and life in our city, it's only right to share a little bit back," he said. "Little Rock is taking care of you in essence. It may be your workplace, but invest a little bit into our community, and I don't feel like that's asking too much."

Boone said that tourists pay certain fees to rent a car, rent a hotel room, buy concert tickets and more with sales taxes, so it likely wouldn't hurt if 50 cents were taken out of nonresident workers' paychecks if they make over $50,000 per year.

"I mean, they have Starbucks in Bryant and Conway now; it used to be they would stop at the doughnut shops when they come in to work in Little Rock and maybe in the evening get some gas, but [now] you have access to the same facilities and businesses which draw in sales taxes in their communities," he added. "Then we're missing [that] here. You're making your living here but you're not investing anything back into the community where you're working."

Boone added that he is for the sales-tax increase, but he wanted to provide an alternative means to levy or obtain additional funding.

Jill Massirer, a resident at the meeting on Monday, asked about the cost of replacing firetrucks and police cars and how that factors into each department's budget without the added tax on residents.

Moore and Fire Chief Delphone Hubbard explained that the department's current budget does allocate money for replacement vehicles, but the insurance to replace older ones due to accidents does not provide enough coverage.

Hubbard recalled that when the department lost an old firetruck last year in an accident, the insurance only covered the value of what was left. The amount they received back was a fourth of what a brand new firetruck costs now.

Ordering a new firetruck takes around 24-30 months to fulfill with the current state of the economy, he added.

"I can always use help when it comes to getting new firetrucks," Hubbard said.

When the department orders parts for older firetrucks, you're testing the limits of the vehicle's capabilities because of the age and the mechanical issues, he explained.

Facility improvements, training, new employee salaries and professional development classes would benefit greatly from the sales tax increase, Hubbard added.

"It'd be a great benefit to the community."

Massirer expressed disappointment that only 11% of the proposed tax plan would go toward public safety.

"When you're asking for 55% of it going to parks, they should have more of, what is the revenue going to be?" she asked. "That's a very important question to be able to answer ... What is it going to generate? I know there's never a good time to increase your tax, but right now, it's super difficult for all of us and it's doubling and I'm just disappointed in the responses and they didn't have more accurate information to give."

Another idea brought up at the meeting was for the city to partner with local school districts to use their sports complexes instead of spending money to update War Memorial Park and add other tournament facilities.

Leland Couch, parks and recreation director for the city, said he is open to change and suggestions from residents.

[DOCUMENT: Read the projects proposed with an increased sales tax » arkansasonline.com/815lrtax/]

"I don't know if the school district is looking for what we're looking for, would be my question," he said. "We're looking for a tournament facility to bring people to Little Rock to play tournaments and provide something for our citizens, which is a really big thing. And it provides not only just for sports but other recreation activities and special events, all kinds of stuff ... Tourism, that's the biggest reason, and so I don't know if the school district is looking for exactly that, but I mean, that's a good conversation."

Couch said he has partnered with the Little Rock School District for students to utilize Kanis Park and other sports fields, but "no one is coming to town to play on one field in different locations."

"We're talking about a really big complex, a really big thing," he explained. "What I'd like to reiterate, though, is that out of all the things that were on the list for quality of life, we talked about maybe one or two ... There's $16 million in there for maintenance and upgrades of what we have, which is huge. It more than doubles our maintenance budget now, and that's what we need. This is not just focused on a sports complex, it's focused on all of our quality of life, all of our parks."

The sales tax would provide the department the chance to add something new to every one of its 63 parks, Couch added.

Kendra Pruitt, the mayor's chief of staff, said the board of directors is excited to hear from residents at future meetings.

"We're taking it all in," she said. "The mayor, our office, the administration are not married to any particular thing, but we want to make sure that this proposal reflects the interests of our residents and so we're happy to take it in," she said. "This is just the first one, so another ward could have completely different perspectives, but we want to hear from everyone and so we encourage residents from across the city to come out, make their voices heard and make sure that we know what they want to see in this sales tax proposal."

The next public input meeting is at Second Baptist Church Downtown, 222 E. Eighth St. in Ward 1 at 6 p.m. Wednesday.