BRIAN CHILSON
‘TOUGH CHOICES:’ Mayor Frank Scott Jr. urged city directors not to table discussion of the proposed budget amendment for another two weeks, but directors voted 7-3 to do so.

In a Little Rock Board of Directors meeting Tuesday afternoon, city directors voted 7 to 3 to delay action on a revised version of a budget amendment first presented at a meeting last week. The new amendment would reduce city expenditures for the rest of 2019 by about $2.1 million, a significant change from the original recommendation, which proposed adjusting the annual budget by around $5.3 million. The parks department, youth programs and outside agencies, including the Museum of Discovery and the Chamber of Commerce, would receive the largest cuts. 

When Mayor Frank Scott Jr. opened the meeting, he reminded directors that “countless hours” and thought had gone into the revised amendment.

“It’s been a great week of learning,” Scott said.” [Finance Director] Sarah [Lenehan] and myself and the city manager, we listened to you and heard the concerns. I hope this revision addresses that.”

Reductions to jobs and funding to the parks department remained a point of contention among directors. The new proposal would cut parks expenditures by $361,635 in 2019 or $723,270 annually, compared to the $513,135 proposed in the initial amendment, which would have cut about $1 million annually. Five positions within the department and $305,000 in funding were restored to the parks department under the revised amendment.

John Eckart, director of Parks and Recreation, answered questions from several city directors about how cuts to the department would affect the maintenance and quality of the city’s 63 parks. City Director Capi Peck asked whether the accreditation of the parks would stay safe if the proposed cuts were made, and Eckart said it would if the department is able to outsource maintenance. Peck also asked how common outsourcing was for other municipalities with many city parks.

“Typically, departments will outsource about 35 to 40 percent of their land maintenance,” Eckart said. “Currently, we are doing 100 percent of the maintenance in-house, so this is going to get us more in line with national averages.”

City Director Ken Richardson also expressed his concern for reductions to parks, saying the quality of life in Little Rock, including the upkeep of its parks, add as much to public safety as the police.

“I  believe quality of life in our city is just as important as those two gentlemen sitting [outside the board room], our police officers,” Richardson said. “I think a lot of times, those are some of the greatest public safety strategies we can utilize with community building — quality of life issues that focus less on enforcement or jailing or policing. From my standpoint, that’s a real critical element we need to look at in terms of public safety.”

The new proposal still recommends closing and repurposing two city golf courses, though the proposal does not say which would be closed. First Tee, a private nonprofit golf course, would still receive the $160,000 allocated by the city for operations from April through July. Several community members spoke in support of keeping War Memorial Golf Course open, saying the course is more affordable than others in the city and more accessible for senior citizens. 

At-large Director Joan Adcock agreed that the course should not be closed and also shared concern over the amendment’s proposed reductions in hours of operations, staff and expenditures at some of the city’s community centers.

“Looks like seniors are taking a big hit tonight,” Adcock said.

Outside agencies saw more lenient cuts in their city funding than were originally proposed. The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, initially recommended to have the $300,000 it receives from the city cut in half to $150,000, would instead be cut by a third, or by $100,000 annually. The Museum of Discovery would also see a significantly smaller cut in its annual funding from the city — down to a $38,000 reduction from an originally proposed $115,000 cut.

Jay Chesshir, CEO and president of the Chamber of Commerce, spoke to directors about the organization’s value to the city. At-large Director Gene Fortson asked Chesshir where cuts would have to be made within the chamber if its city funding is cut, and Chesshir said they would be made in its personnel, analytics equipment and tools used to create data for projects, and marketing.

“What eggs are you hatching right now, and how far are they from reaching incubation?” Forston asked. “Will that be affected by any change in staff?”

Chesshir said the new projects would be affected by staff changes. While the “decision-making process” of prospective companies might not be impacted by a reduction, the number of potential new businesses recruited by the chamber would decrease and eventually stagnate, he said.

Chesshir also said the chamber is working with five companies that are close to making a decision to establish business in Little Rock within the next six months, and it has around 25 companies on its “prospect list” for the next year.

Director Lance Hines spoke at length about his concerns with the revised budget amendment, saying he felt budget issues had been kept from him and other city directors.

“I don’t know what the real ‘real’ is,” Hines said. I am upset with staff, with the mayor, because I don’t really buy any of this. … I feel like I’ve been treated like a mushroom. And if you know how you raise mushrooms, it’s not a very pleasant deal. They’re kept in the dark and fed something.”

Hines called for the administration and city leaders to address the “sacred cow” that is the Public Works department. No cuts have been proposed for the Public Works because Scott said the city’s infrastructure is a top priority in budget concerns. Hines also said the revised amendment does not properly address a major source of the city’s budget: the 76 percent allotted to personnel, and the majority of that personnel budget, which is dedicated to the fire and police departments.

“If we don’t address reduction in efficiency across the board, I don’t have any confidence that going forward, we won’t be in this same boat six months or nine months from now,” Hines said.

Many city directors expressed concern about the “staggering” number of people who commute to Little Rock for work but live in neighboring, “homogenous” cities and do their shopping there, meaning they’re not contributing to sales tax revenue or paying property tax in the capital. City Director Katy Webb shared statistics on this pattern from Metroplan, though she cautioned that the data isn’t as current as she’d prefer.

“I found that this was really staggering: In Saline County, 28,000 people drive to Pulaski County to work, and in Lonoke County, it’s 14,000 [people who] drive to Pulaski County to work,” Webb said. “Those numbers are growing, and while this is not a 30 Crossing discussion, frankly, that’s one of the things that worried me from day one about that — that those numbers would continue to grow, more people coming into the city, leaving with no support for the city services, and huge wear and tear on our infrastructure.”

After a 10-minute recess, Richardson moved to end discussion on the amendment and move to a vote on the budget amendment ordinance. Directors voted against this. Webb entered a substitute motion, “given the discussion and the number of people who are here tonight and the ongoing questions we have,” and moved to table discussion of the amendment for two weeks.

Before directors voted on this motion to delay action, Scott asked them to vote against it.

“Tabling it for two weeks does not stop the impending deficit that we have today, and that definitely creates time issues with our staff that could potentially be affected, and how they would have to react,” Scott said. “I would urge the board not to do that. It’s clearly your pleasure, but tabling it does not dismiss the fact that we still have a $7 million deficit. The sooner we get a chance to take care of this issue, I think the better that we protect and advance our long term fiscal future.”

In a roll call vote, directors Hendrix, Richardson and Kumpuris voted “no” to tabling the amendment, and directors Webb, Peck, Hines, Wright, Fortson, Adcock and Wyrick voted “yes.”

Because the meeting in two weeks is an agenda meeting, the board will have to call a special meeting to allow for a potential vote on the amendment.