The Little Rock City Board talked but reached no conclusions last night about solving a budget in which revenue isn’t sufficient for current operations and, even with proposed cuts, seems unlikely to be sufficient next year to meet the inexorable rise in fixed costs any business can expect without more pain.
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So let’s talk about controversial issues.
- PARKS: Budget cutters target Hindman Park, but want to keep subsidizing the First Tee course created by the billionaire Stephens family, a venture that wasn’t supposed to cost the city. For the rest of this year, the cost is $160,000. Closing War Memorial golf course would save money, but what comes next? It will cost money. Or God forbid, trash the park with a floodlit driving range and sports bar if some have their way.
- OUTSOURCING: Sending park maintenance and other duties to outside contractors will eat up about two-thirds of the cost of savings of layoffs of city employees. Private operators seeking a profit will do the same or better job for less money? Some are skeptical.
- GIVEAWAYS: $300,000 to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose members once bore the entire cost for the operation and its lobbying agenda for business-friendly political goals. Where’s the evidence the city did worse when a court put a stop to the unconstitutional chamber handouts (before a devious and felonious legislator came up with a constitutional amendment to restore the corporate welfare subsidy)? And how about making Conway, Benton, Bryant, Cabot and others contribute to the chamber payroll subsidy? They benefit from the huge suburban workforce that comes to plants here and goes home to shop, leaving little financial benefit for Little Rock behind. (50,000 workers a day come from Saline and Lonoke counties alone, Director Kathy Webb pointed out last night.)
- MORE GIVEAWAYS: Tell the Little Rock Tech Park the handouts are over. They shouldn’t build another taxpayer-subsidized building unless they can figure out how to pay for it without any more sales tax handouts from the city. The city never should have gotten in the real estate speculation business. And what have we received from our supposed partners in this enterprise (UAMS, UALR), being shored up by pre-existing tenants in a building bought from the Stephens’ interests for $11 million or so?
- MORE GIVEAWAYS: Why should taxpayers buy land for speculation at the Little Rock Port. And stop with the “golden gooses.” We’re giving free land to a Czech gunmaker that won’t create port revenue, and we’ve made no requirement for local hiring by them in return, much less even disclosure of the hiring numbers. Little Rock’s benefits from this giveaway are likely to be illusory. Save the tech park and port doles for city uses. Shift other expenses (such as that two-year delayed restroom at Hindman Park mentioned by Director B.J. Wyrick) into instant capital spending and free up money for operations.
- SACRED COWS: Director Lance Hines objected vigorously to a failure to look at police and fire union contracts for savings. We couldn’t afford the wage increase we gave them, turns out. We can’t afford the massive overtime being paid to step up cop presence on the streets. Hiring more cops? Good luck.
- AND SPEAKING OF SAVINGS: End the free commuter cars for mostly white cops to drive home to suburban cities where they spend Little Rock paychecks at the local Target and Walmart, not Little Rock stores. That would save at least $1 million a year.
- GET SERIOUS ABOUT SCHOOLS: The city can’t do much directly, but it can forcefully and in unison tell the Walton Family Foundation to stop its assault on the Little Rock School District and UA Little Rock. Perhaps some strong PR pressure would slow the billionaires’ attack. If and when Little Rock is finally their dream — a crazy quilt of charter schools of vastly different quality and accessibility (plus private schools for the well-off) — it won’t present an attractive locale for industrialist accustomed to traditional functioning public school districts.
- SET AN EXAMPLE: The mayor — with a new police escort, an $18,000 inaugural day party, new furniture and offices and other trappings including a new PR aide — is not projecting the image of austerity necessary to encourage voters to support the inevitable proposal for increased taxes. Speaking of taxes: Is it time again to think about pitching a law change to allow a commuter tax?
- FILL THE POTHOLES: Don’t rob the street fund, as is being done (albeit for the necessity of continuing support for the Rock Region Metro). It is time to try again for a dedicated revenue source for the bus company. It would create immense relief for the city budget.
- TEMPER OPTIMISM: Let’s be pessimistic, not optimistic, about revenue from the sales tax. Internet sales tax salvation is NOT around the corner. Further migration of retail in Little Rock to the Internet and suburban cities is more likely than not. Get real.
- STOP THE GULCH: Save $3 million from future obligations by de-authorizing that spending on helping the state with its I-30 concrete gulch through Little Rock. Its only benefit will be to shave a few seconds off commute times for suburban dwellers during limited rush-hour periods. A lawsuit is coming on that project, which is woefully underfunded, yet the city commits to spending $3 million on a project of unknown dimensions? How smart is that?
It’s past time to fiddle around the edges. It’s time for big thinking and new approaches.
The only way this city will prosper is to make it an attractive place to live, with good infrastructure, good parks, good cultural offerings, good schools and public policies that encourage healthy, functioning families.
Last night’s debate made clear to me that we are sliding in the wrong direction. Beggaring services and ladling out corporate welfare haven’t worked to date. Let’s try something else.