Aside from some grumbling, members of the Little Rock Board of Directors have had little publicly to say about Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s plan to ask voters to approve a permanent 1 percent sales tax increase, which would generate an estimated $53 million annually. But there are rumblings of efforts from board members to find support for counterproposals.
On Tuesday, a motion to suspend the rules and advance consideration of an ordinance to call a July 13 election only got votes from At-large Director Antwan Phillips and Ward 2 Director Ken Richardson, six short of the number needed. The mayor will try again Tuesday at a special called meeting. If that fails, there will be a vote May 4, at which point it’ll take at least five directors plus the mayor to send the proposal to voters.
Along with Phillips and Richardson, Ward 1 Director Erma Hendrix is seen as a safe “aye” vote. She was off-camera Tuesday and raging, for reasons hard to understand, over the board signing off on a community garden, but she’s reliably supported the mayor’s initiatives. But what about the other two votes?
At the board’s April 13 agenda meeting, Ward 6 Director Doris Wright said she wanted money from the tax to go to sprucing up ball fields at the West Central Community Center and to developing programming in the parks. She complained that there was a lack of emphasis on spending on initiatives to curb street violence and said pre-K education was the purview of the federal and state governments. For those reasons, she said she wouldn’t support the plan.
Ward 7 Director BJ Wyrick suggested at a March 30 board meeting that the proposal wasn’t sufficiently focused on what her constituents cared about. “I’m kind of nuts and bolts,” she said. “I like crime prevention. I like my firemen. I like my neighborhoods to be improving. I like my streets. I don’t like people calling me saying, ‘My house is washing away.’ ” She said her constituents like the zoo and potential for parks, but those aren’t top of mind.
Among the alternative ideas floating around:
A 3/8ths 10-year tax is set to sunset at the end of the year. What about reinstating it? some have suggested. It would generate about $20 million per year for the city. Or perhaps the mayor’s plan to ask for a 5/8ths increase (which he and city leaders round to 1 percent to talk in round numbers) could be capped at 10 years to appease those with no appetite for a permanent tax?
Another proposal I’ve seen sticks with the permanent 5/8ths plan, but rearranges the allocations. It echoes some of the complaints from Wright and Wyrick and appears to align with Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce priorities: Over 10 years, it would erase $40 million in spending on early childhood education and care; shift away two-thirds, or $20 million, of planned spending at the zoo; and cut $15 million from a planned affordable housing fund. That money would instead go largely to public safety with $25 million allocated to hire new police officers and $16.5 million for the construction and operation of a new fire station on Colonel Glenn. It would give $10 million to Rock Region Metro and $9.5 million to the Little Rock Tech Park, neither of which were directly identified as funding priorities in the mayor’s proposal. The alternative plan would confusingly spend $10 million less than the mayor’s plan on street resurfacing but $20 million more in “strategic infrastructure.” It would also add $10 million to aid homeless people. This plan keeps Scott’s proposed parks spending, which represents the largest share of the tax money.
There’s been no serious talk of defunding the police in Little Rock, but it’s hard for me to believe that any urban city in America in 2021 would go for dramatically expanding its police force. Rather than ensure that Black and Brown families have access to high-quality child care and pre-K, we’re going to hire more cops to arrest them? It’s true that Scott campaigned on hiring more police officers, something he’s since backed away from.
There are generational and racial divides among the board and the mayor. Ahead of Scott’s first detailed presentation of the sales tax plan, several board members grilled Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey on the LRPD’s efforts to curb street racing and caravanning and repeatedly told him there was a widespread perception that Little Rock is unsafe and crime-ridden. As someone who is middle-aged, lives in midtown and works downtown, that’s not my perception. I don’t have any way to judge who’s right. But Scott ran on being a strong mayor and won the election handily, so too did Antwan Phillips, a young Black attorney who ran citywide for his at-large seat. They campaigned on many of the sorts of proposals that are in the mayor’s tax plan. Perhaps the electorate in Little Rock is changing.
Word is that the mayor is unwilling to go in a substantially different direction from his proposal. Might we be headed for an impasse? If the board votes down the tax plan, then you might see a concerted effort to turn over many of the long-held seats.