The Little Rock City Board had a brief discussion this afternoon about the plans to vote next week on resuming $300,000 a year in taxpayer subsidy to salaries and expenses of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.
City Manager Bruce Moore touted the jobs that had come to Little Rock as a result of the “partnership” between the city and Chamber dating back to 2005, though there was no demonstration of how the city’s participation specifically produced jobs that might have come to the city regardless. Nor was there any specific explanation of why the chamber can’t continue the work it’s always done without city assistance in salary payment.
Vice Mayor Kathy Webb asked about chamber participation in political activities at the legsilature, where its ally, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce lobbied for, among others, cuts in workers compensation and unemployment compensation. Moore said Little Rock Chamber CEO Jay Chesshir had said the Little Rock chamber wasn’t involved in that effort, wasn’t even aware of it. (Their industrial development work must not include reading the daily newspaper, where the issues were discussed extensively.)
Chesshir is supposed to talk about the chamber’s political activities next week. I hope he’ll be asked about his leadership in the effort for the state to seize control of the Little Rock School District. Its political advocacy, by admission of its own annual report, was pushing the constitutional amendment to legalize payments to chambers of commerce and to increase state corporate welfare payments to private business. It also has advocated widening I-30 through downtown to speed traffic to suburbs. It has also intervened to fight the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma in using land it purchased near the port in a way other than that approved by the city power structure. In this, it is guarding against creating a cmompetitor for the Oaklawn Park casino, a major contributor to the Chamber of Commerce. The same people who do political work do development work, the Chamber has acknowledged previously, so the representations by city officials tonight that these matters are somehow separate was disingenuous at best. But enough of my criticism. This deal is clearly greased. It is greased because the chamber provided the financial power to pass the the last Little Rock sales tax increase. This is its gratuity, along with the $21 million shipped to its Technology Park project, a big real estate play downtown.
City Director Joan Adcock praised the chamber for providing apples and bananas for children at a recent visit by people from Guatemala. She did ask a question to which I didn’t hear a specific answer: What the chamber is going to do different now from work previously.
I hope next week for a specific showing of the value of city money, apart from reducing the budget the chamber must raise from members. And I’d hope for discussion about the amount of city-critical information being put under wraps by this contract. It requires no specific report of time or individual contacts. It prohibits access to information about who’s been prospected, what demands they’ve made and what representations have been made in the city’s behalf about race, environment, schools, taxes, tax abatement, city contributioin to infrastructure and more.
Moore said he couldn’t do the work with an in-house operation for $300,000 a year.