At a meeting about the city’s budget on Tuesday afternoon, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and the board of directors discussed the city’s financial future and concluded that significant staffing cuts will need to be made. Seventy-five percent of the city’s budget is dedicated to personnel.
Scott said he will present an amendment to the 2019 budget to the board of directors “sometime between now and June.” At-large directors Dean Kumpuris and Gene Fortson asked that the board of directors have significant input into the creation of the budget amendment, asking to see a breakdown of how many employees in each city department would be suggested to be cut and how those cuts would impact the overall budget.
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In addition to cutting personnel, Scott said the city will need to cut back on supporting community organizations with city money.
“We have to begin to worry about our long-term future,” Scott said. “Our fund balance right now is $33 million. And you take $10 million that’s [in] restricted [funds.] So now it’s $23 million. … We are cutting it close. And so, to make certain that we maintain our city’s priorities, No. 1 is public safety, infrastructure, quality of life and youth engagement. We have to make certain that we operate and right-size our government to reflect those priorities. We spend a lot of money with organizations around this city, and we can’t do that anymore. We cannot be a bank to other organizations, and we’ve got to make those tough decisions.”
He added that the board of directors is undergoing a “budget exercise” and has looked at potential cuts to these organizations.
While Fortson said he hopes recent legislation passed to require internet sales tax on purchases made in Arkansas will help increase the city’s revenue, he said he’s concerned about the sales tax revenue lost from the “125,00 people” who work in Little Rock but live in adjacent cities like Benton, Bryant, Bauxite and Conway and used to do their shopping in the capital but now have access to that shopping in their own cities. He also called for city leaders to view the budget problems realistically.
“Auditors and accountants and financial people use nicer language, but when you get right down to it, when you spend more money in your operating activities than you take in, what that’s called is deficit financing,” Fortson said. “If you’re taking in X and you’re spending X plus, sooner or later, that well’s going to run dry. … Our problem is not just operating, our problem is also our asset base and what’s happened to deplete it.”
Sara Lenehan, city finance director, gave a presentation on the 2019 budget to city leaders, which included information on how the new mayor’s financial goals would potentially impact a budget already operating from a deficit.
Scott’s desire to add 100 new police officers to the Little Rock Police Department over the next five years, a campaign promise he has consistently touted, would be costly. According to the finance department, the estimated cost of adding 20 officers in the first year would be approximately $1.6 million. This projection takes into account salary and benefits of about $62,500 per officer and uniform and training equipment costs of $15,000 per officer. The $1.6 million figure does not include the cost of vehicles or body worn cameras, for which the city recently issued Request For Proposals.
City directors Ken Richardson and Lance Hines both expressed hesitancy about hiring 100 new police officers. Hines said this is because he feels Little Rock’s new chief of police, Keith Humphrey, needs time to analyze whether these additional officers are actually needed. Richardson said he understands Scott “wanting to fulfill a campaign promise,” but he’s concerned about adding more police officers who would work in Little Rock but live outside the city and with how the hiring of new officers would appear to communities who don’t trust law enforcement.
“How are you going to embrace community-oriented policing if you don’t live in the community that you’re policing?” Richardson asked.
Scott responded by reminding those in attendance at the meeting that today is his 106th day in office, and what was shared at the meeting today is that the city’s budget was behind by $9 million “before I was even sworn in.”
“We brought forth this summary to you to let you know where we’ve been in the past,” Scott said. “This has been going on before I was elected, and we have to make certain [of] our priorities, which is public safety, which is infrastructure, which is quality of life. We’ve been spending an excess of dollars in areas of our city for quite some time. And we will have to make some very tough decisions as it relates to people.”
Scott said allocating funds to hiring new police officers is an example of prioritizing public safety.
“We will have to look at how we do business with our police officers that do not live here, but I will share this again: My friend Gene Fortson would tell you, as it relates to sales tax dollars, a big component of economic development is public safety and infrastructure,” Scott said. “And we’ve been experiencing declining sales tax revenues for the last 10 to 12 years. We have to make certain that public safety is a priority. … All I can do as mayor is work with the city manager to propose a budget. We’ve already had a budget exercise, and we do know, based on the [exercise], there [is] going to be a number of different employees that may or may not have to be laid off, but that’s the decision for the board and myself to make together. … I want to make certain it’s clear that we have to address a spending problem that’s been going on for the past 12 years.”