BRIAN CHILSON
KEEPING PRIORITIES STRAIGHT: In a board of directors meeting, Mayor Frank Scott Jr. shared two recommendation options for amending the city’s tight budget.

In a board of directors meeting Tuesday evening, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. presented two recommendation options for amendments to the city’s budget. Both options call for significant cuts to employment in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the reallocation of $500,000 previously allotted to Rock Region Metro to the city’s Street Fund, a 50 percent cut to the city’s funding for the Museum of Discovery, and significant reductions to the Children, Youth and Families services budget and Prevention, Intervention and Treatment Funds.

Scott presented his Budget Recommendations A and B at the meeting, but city directors will not vote on changes to the budget until at least next week, if not later. Many city directors expressed concern over both recommendation options, including at-large Director Dean Kumpuris, who called Recommendation B “draconian.”

Budget Recommendation A would adjust the city’s current general fund budget by around 2.5 percent, which would amount to about $5.3 million annually. In addition to changes in funding to Rock Region Metro and the Museum of Discovery, Recommendation A also included a 50 percent reduction of the $300,000 the city currently provides to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. At-large City Director Joan Adcock described Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jay Chesshir as the “golden goose who lays the golden eggs for us,” and described the cut to the Chamber as cutting off Chesshir’s “food bill.”

“I think we need to look closely at that if we expect him and his group to come here and give us the wonderful news that they do, and then he’s got his head on the chopping block,” Adcock said.

Budget Recommendation A would cut 48 city positions, 14 of which are currently vacant and 34 of which are filled.

Budget Recommendation B would adjust the city’s current general fund budget by about 3.5 percent, or around $7.4 million, approximately $2 million more than Budget Recommendation A, and it would cut 80 city positions.

Neither of the recommendation options includes funding for new initiatives, such as the mayor’s desire to add 100 new police officers to the Little Rock Police Department over the next five years, the purchase of body-worn cameras for officers, or the hiring of a chief education officer for the city.

This post will be updated.

UPDATE:

Mayor Frank Scott Jr. began Tuesday evening’s budget presentation at the end of a two-hour board of directors meeting by telling city leaders that he, City Manager Bruce Moore, and Finance Director Sarah Lenehan spent “countless hours” preparing and discussing the recommendations presented to the board.

(See the PowerPoint presentation in PDF form here.)

“Our city has financial challenges that must be addressed,” Scott said. “Most politicians are optimists by nature, but when we are in this room doing the job that the taxpayers have hired us to do, we must balance optimism and aspiration with pragmatism, living within our means and prioritizing those things that are most critical to our fellow citizens.”

Scott said the recommendations were created using two sets of criteria, the first being “overall priorities” for the city: public safety, quality of life and infrastructure. As a result, cuts to the police and fire departments were limited to $750,000, and the IT and public works departments were untouched, which Scott said is a reflection of the city’s commitment to “infrastructure of all kinds.”

“Quality of life represented an area more difficult to preserve unchanged,” Scott said, ahead of presenting two recommendation options that would both significantly cut positions and funding to the parks department.

Scott said the second set of criteria included the stewardship of taxpayer dollars and the impact of existing services that affect children, as well as the impact on city employees and their families. Throughout the presentation, Scott emphasized that the $210.6 million budget — and its roughly $7 million deficit — was approved by the city board before he took office, saying that by the time he began looking into the budget, “This was already done.”

Scott and Lenehan said city employees whose jobs may be subject to cuts were notified by their department directors earlier in the day on Tuesday.

Lenehan said she, Scott and Moore recommended Budget Recommendation A, which would adjust the city’s general fund budget by about 2.5 percent, around $5.3 million a year. This recommendation would eliminate 48 jobs, 34 of which are filled. Of those 34 filled jobs, 17 are parks employees. Total cuts to Parks and Recreation, including cuts to maintenance expenditures, total just over $1 million.

In addition to reallocating $500,000 from Rock Region Metro funding to the city’s Street Fund and reducing funding to the Museum of Discovery by half to $115,000, the first recommendation also reduced the city’s annual allocation to the Downtown Little Rock Partnership by $50,000 to $145,000 annually. Other cuts included the elimination of two deputy attorney positions within the City Attorney’s office, both of which are currently vacant, as well as the elimination of five resource coordinator positions within the Housing and Neighborhood Programs, all of which are currently filled.

City officials also recommended the closing of two of the city’s four golf courses, which would save $642,464. Referencing a presentation on the financial status of city golf that consultants gave to the board during last week’s agenda meeting, Lenehan said that while they had not selected which courses would close, the consultants had assessed Rebsamen as the city’s top golf course, while Hindman was “underwater” due to flooding.

In the first recommendation, the city zoo’s expenditures would also be cut, and it would close to the public on Tuesday and Wednesdays during its slow season between November 1 and March 1 for a total of $92,000 in savings.

While Scott and Lenehan said they were limited in the cuts they could make to the police and fire departments, the first recommendation included a $65,000 reduction in operating expenses within the fire department, as well as the elimination of one currently filled position in the Civilian Warehouse, which would result in a combined $107,287 in savings. Three positions within the police department, one of which is currently filled, would be eliminated, for a total of $114,355 in savings.

The first recommendation also included a $750,000 reduction in funds allocated to the city’s Prevention, Intervention and Treatment Programs, leaving an annual funding amount of $4.75 million still remaining for the programs.

Budget Recommendation B would reduce the city’s general fund budget — the expenditures that fund the day-to-day operations of the city — by 3.5 percent, equating to about $7.4 million. This 1 percent difference between Recommendations A and B is a significant one: Under the second recommendation, 80 city positions would be cut, 28 of which would be from within the Parks and Recreation Department. Funding for Children, Youth and Family services and PIT programs would be reduced by $835,000, police and fire funding would be reduced by a combined $750,000, and funding allocated for the zoo would be reduced by over $800,000, a cut that Lenehan said could require the closure of certain exhibits and would likely put the zoo’s accreditation at risk.

After the budget presentation, several city directors were critical of the significant funding cuts to the Parks Department, the Museum of Discovery and the Chamber of Commerce. Director Capi Peck expressed concern over how cutting funding and employees of the parks would affect Little Rock’s status as the “city within a park.” Director Gene Fortson said proposed funding reductions to parks, golf and the zoo, which he called “quality of life services, would have a combined total of nearly $1 million. Cutting support to those departments is a  “decision that could have consequences,” Fortson said.

Fortson also asked for a “template or narrative” detailing funding cuts to the Parks department that explains how the department will maintain service, saying “We can’t cut that many people and maintain our level of service. There’s a tradeoff.”

Kumpuris spoke for several minutes about his dissatisfaction with both of the options presented, saying several times that he wants to see an “option C.”

“What I’m afraid we’re doing is we’re slipping down to making sure we have mediocrity,” Kumpuris said.

Kumpuris did not support the reallocation of $500,00 to the city’s Street Fund from Rock Region Metro, agreeing with Fortson’s earlier comment that doing so would be an example of “deficit spending.” He also said funding cuts to the Museum of Discovery would hurt the city, calling the museum “as much an organization of the city as the zoo,” and such reductions would cut off opportunities for children to spend time at the museum this summer.

Kumpuris was especially critical of both recommendations’ funding cuts to PIT money.

“I’m going to really have to think about whether I’m going to be able to vote for something that cuts money out of PIT,” Kumpuris said. “I got the PIT passed, I fought it the last time we did it [when] we cut a little bit. I have regretted doing it, and to do it again is just not the deal we made with the community. We have always said, and Tom has always told us, you can’t define one board by what a board did before them, but I have always looked at that money as being sacrosanct.”

Kumpuris asked to see the worksheets involved in Lenehan, Scott and Moore’s creation of the recommendations, as he said he believes “the hardest decisions have not yet been made,” decisions he said would need to be to “close something that has minimal productivity, even if there’s a few people who say they love it.”

“It looks good to say you’re doing these things, but if the idea is to grow our way out of this, we won’t get people here,” Kumpuris said. “Y’all are going to have to do a lot of convincing in the next week.” 

Other city directors asked about ways to increase sources of recurring revenue for the city. Joan Adcock and Lance Hines both asked about increasing the amounts of court fees or other citation fines and inquired as to recent lower numbers of speeding tickets issued by police. Adcock said she distributed a piece of paper to board members at a meeting a few weeks ago with statistics about tickets written by the police department.

“[The paper] showed that over the last few years, we are losing $2 million per year from tickets, and it also showed that the police were giving $2 million less [in] tickets, which is [about] 2,000 tickets [less per year] than they were giving,” Adcock said. “When I asked the person that gave it to me why [this is happening], they said it was because the police department had been told, ‘Instead of writing tickets, you should fight crime.’ ”

Adcock asked city officials to look into this, saying “maybe we need to talk to our new chief about the writing of tickets.” 

City Attorney Tom Carpenter then spoke up, saying he wanted to “caution” the board: “I understand that if you have a program in place like a municipal court or a district court, then you need to look at the budget of what impact that will have, but I think it’s also prudent to caution the board that the one thing that courts around the country, and the Department of Justice, are looking at is the actions of local governments using courts to balance their budget,” he said. “That really starts down a very difficult path because it’s not just, ‘I give 25 speeding tickets, so I get $2,500 at a $100 a ticket.’ It is, ‘I give 25 speeding tickets, I’ve got $100 a ticket plus the cost, and for the ones that can’t pay, I suddenly have nonpayment issues,’ … So then we start putting people in jail, and then we start getting into Ferguson. I mean, that is a very explosive issue that can’t just be looked upon in terms of the numbers of tickets or the numbers of fines.”

“Well, I think this is a time that we have to look at everything, Mr. Carpenter,” Adcock responded.

Director Erma Hendrix spoke in support of the mayor, saying to him, “You’re the best. I tell you that every time you come up here. We may chomp at the bits up here, but I think you know what you’re doing.”

She reminded fellow city directors that the mayor did “warn all of us at the outset that this budget would be cut,” and she thanked Scott and Lenehan for their work on the recommendations.

“We can sit here and complain all we want to, but how many of us is mayor, and how many of us is budget director?” Hendrix said. “This budget was here when [Scott] came, and it was too large, and too out of proportion, and you wanted to do something about it. I made be a minority, but I’ll be dared if I don’t talk like a majority.”

Scott ended the budget discussion by saying the budget did not get to its current state “overnight,” saying the city “can’t spend money we don’t have” and reminding city leaders that “tough decisions” will have to be made.

“Our bond rate is in jeopardy if we do not change course for our long-term future,” Scott said. “Can we get by this year? Maybe. But … we will spend ourselves out of a future. We cannot do that. That’s not good as it relates to the respect of our people, who voted for us all to make certain we’d be fiscal stewards of their tax money.”

He also told city directors that not voting on some version of a budget amendment would “send a bad message” to the city’s bondholders.

The lengthy budget discussion followed an already eventful meeting. City government critic Luke Skrable, clad in a tinfoil hat, was escorted out of the meeting by two security officers after raising his voice in protest at not being able to speak during the citizen communication portion of the meeting. After telling Skrable several times that he was “out of order,” Scott said Skrable was “banned.”

A few minutes into Lenehan’s presentation, City Director Ken Richardson suffered a seizure and was escorted out of City Hall in a wheelchair by medical personnel. The meeting later reconvened. Richardson also suffered a seizure during a board meeting in April. 

City directors will resume discussion on the proposed amendment at the board’s next meeting on Tuesday, May 14, at 4 p.m. It will have to be passed by the board for budget cuts to begin.