In a meeting Tuesday afternoon, the Little Rock Board of Directors began discussions about the 2020 budget for the city. Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said that while previous administrations have started such discussions later in the fall, with a budget normally adopted by the second week of December, it’s his “aggressive goal” to adopt the 2020 budget at the board’s Nov. 19 meeting.
Scott said he wanted to start discussions early in part to ensure that the directors have “all possible knowledge about the budgeting process” as they determine the city’s finances for the year.
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“We want to make certain … that every possible question [will] be answered as we come together as a board to realize our priorities,” Scott said. “I’m a firm believer that a budget reflects our priorities.”
After a brief presentation by city Finance Director Sara Lenehan about how the city goes about creating a budget, a few directors shared some concerns about what they would like reflected in the city’s spending, but most were quiet. Ward 6 Director Doris Wright said she wants to ensure that “quality of life” in Little Rock — presented by Lenehan as one of the six main priorities of the “executive administration” — also includes the “liveability” of neighborhoods in lower income areas.
“As you said mayor, the budget reflects our priorities,” Wright said. “To me, [quality of life] means the neighborhoods, the liveability of the neighborhoods. I want to go on record as saying that I want to make sure that we pay some special attention to this, because of the liveability factor. Kids come home to these neighborhoods after they leave school. If they’re weed lots, if they’re overgrown, boarded-up houses, all of this stuff impacts the quality of life of that child, and they’re psyche when they leave that neighborhood and go to school. … My concern is that that gets lost in the mix.
“We say we’re fully staffed in [the city’s Code Enforcement Division], but I don’t believe that,” Wright continued. “Because I know what the staff is saying to me when I drive by junk cars that are on the side of the road that have grass growing under them, that you know have not been moved in months. You cannot tell me that we have a systematic process where we are inspecting and going through these streets in the lower, poor neighborhoods. This is impacting the quality of life of residents, it’s impacting the property values in that area … all of this plays, [for] me, into quality of life. And I just want to make sure that we look at this in our budget process.”
Wright then asked if there was a way for the city to take money from fees collected through housing or rental properties and use it to give pay raises to the city’s code enforcement officers.
“They need to be making at least $32,000 [a year], and they’re not,” Wright said. “And I don’t care what kind of report I’ve gotten. I’ve talked to these people personally, and they can’t pay their bills. Some of them are getting food stamps.”
Scott told Wright that these concerns are included within the “quality of life” budget priority and then reminded directors that it’s their “role” to approve the budget — with room for changes and questions — that’s created by the mayor and City Manager Bruce Moore, who acts as the city’s chief administrative officer.
“I just want to [make] certain and sure that we do have a tight budget, that’s the reason why we had to cut the budget in the middle of the year,” Scott said. “We are committed, just as we were when we all came together to amend this budget, to put us on firmer financial footing. There are going to always be competing thoughts and ideas from each member of this board on what’s a priority for each of us individually, and we all represent citizenry that has elected us to advocate on behalf of them.”
Vice Mayor and Ward 7 Director B.J. Wyrick echoed Wright’s sentiments about increasing pay and efficiency for the Code Enforcement Division, calling it a “stumbling block” for the city.
Ward 5 Director Lance Hines, who emailed Scott last week about delays in the delivery of monthly financial reports to the board, did not share any concerns about the budget during the meeting.
Scott also reminded directors that a few things on the “horizon” will have “direct effects” on the 2020 budget, including the city’s commitment to increase its funding to the Pulaski County jail by about $500,000 and the cost of a new health insurance plan for city employees, which will be addressed in a presentation to the board at its next agenda meeting on Sept. 24.
The budget discussion came after the board received its financial report for the second quarter of 2019 from Lenehan. The city now has financial reports for January through June of 2019, as there’s a two-month lag in state reporting for sales tax collections after each month. The second quarter financial report did not reflect any changes in departmental spending or potential savings for the city that would have resulted from the budget amendment the board approved in June, such as any savings the city has accrued since it closed the Hindman and War Memorial golf courses or eliminated several positions within the Parks Department. Any such savings or changes will first be reflected in the financial report for July, which the city will receive sometime in September.
According to Lenehan, revenue projections for Little Rock are “pretty much right in line with what we expect” for this time of the year, though the city did see an 18 percent growth in sales tax revenue in April. Lenehan said this “very large” number is unusual, and due to confidentiality laws surrounding tax information, the state could only give the city the category under which this large sales tax increase fell: “electrical goods wholesalers.”
Lenehan said this “unusual increase” could be due to the “filing of amended sales tax returns over multiple periods,” which would be “good news” for the city, as it would “get to keep” such funds. But if the sales tax increase is actually due to a “very large sale” — Lenehan gave the example of Entergy replacing meters throughout the city as a potential cause — then a rebate will inevitably follow. Lenehan said businesses have up to 12 months to claim a rebate after a large purchase is made, then added that this is why the state has advised the city use “extreme caution” in using such “out of character revenues” in the creation of its budget. A business claiming a rebate would mean it would be given back a significant portion of what it paid in a purchase, making the sum an unreliable source of funding for the city.
The board will continue discussing the 2020 budget through the fall, and the mayor’s administration is currently setting dates for five “public sessions” about the budget that citizens can attend to voice their concerns.
The board also approved an ordinance for the consent agenda of next week’s meeting that would change the frequency of required inspections for code compliance at all rental housing units in the city. According to Victor Turner, director of Housing and Neighborhood Programs, there are currently 27,859 registered rental units in Little Rock. The new ordinance revises the existing city code on rental inspections, which currently requires the city to inspect all rental units every two years. The proposed revisions would institute a “systematic rental inspection program” that would inspect an annual random sampling of 20 percent of all registered units. The ordinance would also allow the city to issue a “Notice to Comply” request to a property owner or local property agent each time it attempts to inspect a certain property. The revisions also allow inspections to be deferred for newly constructed rental properties that are less than five years old — such units would not be subject to the random systematic inspection program.
Directors also improved an ordinance for next week’s consent agenda that would extend the city’s A Bridge To Work pilot project for a year. The project, which is run by Canvas Community Church, picks up people who are homeless and/or panhandling and offers them hourly pay for city beautification efforts, like picking up trash or gardening projects. In addition to being paid for their work, participants get access to social services and are provided a meal. The project began in April and was initially slated for a 6-month pilot period.