Mayor Frank Scott Jr. state of the city 2021

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. will again ask the city’s Board of Directors to put to voters a one-cent sales tax increase, he announced at his virtual state of the city address Thursday.

The tax increase would produce an estimated $53 million* for the city. It would amount to a 5/8ths of a cent bump in the existing sales tax rate because a 10-year capital improvements tax of 3/8ths of a cent will expire at the end of this year.

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City officials will pitch the proposal to the Board of Directors Tuesday, spokeswoman Stephanie Jackson said. She said the hope is to have it on the ballot this summer. Max Brantley has previously reported that June is a target.

Scott’s speech was short on details, but the plan appears to largely mirror the one he outlined a little more than a year ago, but pulled back on when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged.

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The penny increase would allow the city to do the following, Scott said Thursday:

*Expand early childhood education and high-quality daycare, particularly in South and Southwest Little Rock.

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*Revitalize parks, especially Hindman and War Memorial parks. Hindman would become an outdoor adventure park and War Memorial would get baseball fields and a youth sports complex.

*Improve the Little Rock Zoo in part by adding a giraffe exhibit.

*Create an affordable housing fund, which would allow the city to “acquire, develop and rehabilitate affordable housing in the heart of our city,” the mayor said.

*Improve roads and sidewalks.

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*”Reform” public safety. The money would aid the Little Rock Police Department’s community policing effort by investing in technology and allow the city to hire “experienced personnel” to handle people experiencing mental health episodes, Scott said. The tax increase would also allow the city to build a new fire station in West Little Rock.

Scott didn’t provide a breakdown of how he proposed to divide the money among those initiatives. I’ve asked Jackson for it.

The address was a slickly produced 48 minute advertisement of sorts for Scott and his vision of Little Rock. If at the outset you’d decided to play a drinking game where every time the mayor said the word “equity” you would be falling down on the floor by the end of it. It’s the central theme of his administration, he said, even providing his own dizzying definition: “It’s the customized efforts taken to ensure adequate access, opportunities and representation despite one’s circumstances. In short, it’s meeting people where they are, so they can be who they are where they want to be — all at the same time.”

On theme, Scott said the city would soon announce its first chief diversity officer, who will initially focus on getting the city administration’s “house in order,” before branching out. Last year, Scott said he wanted the city to devote at least 25 percent of the money it pays contractors to women and minorities by the end of 2022. Along those lines, he said the city would later this year unveil Little Rock’s Equity Challenge aimed at local businesses.

Because of last year’s Census, the city board has an opportunity to redraw boundaries. Scott said he would ask the board to create new wards that “look like microcosms of our diverse city” as opposed to “homogeneous wards with arbitrary boundaries like Interstate 630.”

On April 15, the city will begin accepting applications for BUILD (Businesses United in Leadership Development) Academy, a 12-week small business incubator for current and aspiring business owners. The goal is to take “economic development into neighborhoods that have historically been left behind,” Scott said.

In addition to expanding the number of community schools the city has developed in partnership with the Little Rock School District and working to combat learning loss caused by the pandemic with summer programs, Scott said he wants Chief Education Officer Jay Barth to identify partners to fund a Little Rock Promise Scholarship. That’s a tall order if it’s to be modeled on the scholarship programs in El Dorado and Arkadelphia, which guarantee full college scholarships to students who meet certain criteria.

Little Rock needs a reimagined version of Riverfest, the mayor said. In 2022, the city should host LITfest, an arts, music and business event that sounds like it aspires to the vibe of SXSW in Austin. The mayor called on the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Little Rock Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce to make it happen.

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Like Governor Hutchinson, Scott is a fan of commissions and task forces. He announced several Thursday, including a Rebuild the Rock Committee, which would provide oversight of how sales tax dollars were spent should the tax increase pass. 

He also said that he would ask the city board to pass an ordinance creating the Little Rock Health and Wellness commission. “For far too long, Little Rock has been hands off when it comes to public health,” he said. The commission would promote physical and mental wellness and address health disparities in the community.

Also coming soon: a rebrand. The city will get a new logo, website and flag. Hopefully, city officials took inspiration here.

The first half of the presentation was a political convention-style production, with school children reciting the pledge of allegiance and the Rodney Block Collective, Bijoux Pighee, Judson Spillyards and DJ Troy G wearing fancy clothes and performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a rooftop somewhere in Little Rock. UA Little Rock Professor Jessica Scott served as an emcee to kick things off. There was a series of TV clips that celebrated Scott’s accomplishments in the last year, and segments featuring a diverse array of Little Rockers: restaurant owners, a grandmother who’d been homeschooling her kids during the pandemic and a pair of young doctors who moved to town amid the pandemic. I’ve asked Jackson how much it cost to produce.

*An out of date projection was used previously.