The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting of the Little Rock City Board has been posted with only four words referencing what promises to be big news — “2019 budget amendment presentation.”
This is an apparent reference to Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s presentation of recommendations to adjust the budget. Cuts are likely to be required. Additionally, Scott has indicated he wants to move ahead with his campaign promise to expand the police force.
I have a standing request for materials colloquially known as the “pony express” — background information distributed to city directors, generally on the Friday before a meeting, on new items. Nothing has been delivered this week. City directors had mentioned to me earlier in the week that they expected budget ideas from the mayor Tuesday and hoped they’d have some time in advance of the meeting to study his ideas for an informed discussion.
Several million dollars in cuts will be required on account of stagnant revenue. And then there’s the question of new costs. In addition to taking two officers and a vehicle out of normal police service for a mayoral escort service, Scott has talked about adding 25 officer positions a year to the force until 100 have been added. He’s also outlined plans for some new city positions, including a chief education officer. He’s yet to hire a chief of staff and he’s added a part-time public relations assistant, among other potential added expenditures.
The “Scott Script,” a set of recommendations by the mayor that drew on the work of appointed citizen committees, included a section on finances. It referenced a need for city growth to expand revenues, for example. But it didn’t delve into immediate nitty-gritty, though it obliquely referenced city needs in a discussion of possible new revenue streams for parks and transit and the possibility of an additional sales tax. It did not mention the expiration in two years of a 3-8th cent sales tax devoted to capital improvements or the mounting deficit in parks thanks to losses in golf course operations. Park revenues are pledged to the bonds used to finance the Clinton Presidential Center.
Can Scott build a governing consensus on the city board? Evidence of success so far is not abundant. Typical was Rebekah Hall’s revealing interview with at-large City Director Joan Adcock, an informed veteran of hardball board politics. Adcock questioned Scott’s experience and knowledge in taking control of city departments from the city manager, including finance. She’s resistant to the idea of new sales taxes and, not incidentally, no fan of Scott’s plan to restructure city government, perhaps by eliminating at-large directors.
I’ve been trying for weeks, without success, to get Scott or his top advisers to release working papers from the study groups that contributed to the “Scott Script.” But Baker Kurrus, vice chair of the finance committee, did send me a copy of financial recommendations he had made during the closed-door meetings.
He cautions that his report was done in February before final 2018 and 2019 budget figures were available. Some figures are necessarily inexact. But he is informed by December revenue, which was below the amount received the same month a year earlier.
For those interested in the city budget, Kurrus’ report is detailed and straightforward. He brings to it the study he’d done as an unsuccessful candidate for mayor on top of his years in business, including as manager of major auto dealerships.
Kurrus notes that the projection of 3.1 percent sales tax growth for 2018 fell far short, only about 1 percent. He commented that the 2019 budget anticipated 6.5 percent revenue growth, which he said would be surprising given recent experience. The budget is around $200 million.
Savings are sometimes realized in not filling job vacancies. That will be hard to accomplish. Kurrus wrote about police:
During early 2018 the police department had a number of vacant
positions. However, by late fall the department was almost fully staffed. By December 31, 2018 the department had 43 vacant positions. Of that total, 26 of the vacancies were for uniformed personnel. I do not know if the mayor’s current proposal is to add 25 new positions or 25 new officers to the 2018 year-end number. Little Rock has not been fully staffed with uniformed officers for any length of time in the last few years. Some vacancy savings is to be expected in any large organization. If Little Rock is going to add 100 police officers as promised, the department must presumably first get to full staffing under its current budget. The 2018 vacancy savings in the police department was about $3,000,000. If Little Rock simply staffs up to the current authorized levels by filling open positions, that would be a budget add of something in the range of $3,000,000. If Little Rock adds 25 more entry level positions,
(which may or may not be what the city needs), the costs would be substantially less the first year, say $1,000,000, but would quickly grow toward the average cost of an officer.
Kurrus also notes the need for 12 firefighters to staff a new station in Southwest Little Rock. The city also may face higher costs for use of the county jail. And he wrote, the city is spending an increasing amount of the budget, now around 75 percent, on personnel. That means it’s spending less on supplies, tools, maintenance, repair and other operating costs. Kurrus report commented:
In summary, it does not appear that Little Rock is in a position financially to add any personnel in one department unless there are major cuts in other areas. Even with the apparently optimistic 2019 revenue increases which are projected, the bulk of the anticipated increases in revenue for 2019 will be absorbed by pay increases that are already promised to existing personnel.
So what can be done to increase city revenue? These were the ideas Kurrus listed:
1. Increase gross retail sales in Little Rock.
2. Increase the city sales tax.
3. Increase the property tax base in Little Rock. (operating millage is at the legal maximum)
Items 1 and 3 will occur if more persons who work in Little Rock also live here, own real estate here, and shop here. Those are the keys to success. Adding new jobs in Little Rock, by itself, does not guarantee that the new employees will either live or shop here.
Little Rock’s sales tax is one-half of one percentage point less than North Little Rock’s general sales tax. I would not be supportive of this regressive tax unless I was sure that all current revenues were being spent wisely.
These are just one man’s ideas and he has no say in what’s to come. But they preview matters to be up for discussion Tuesday night. City politics fans might want to grab some popcorn.