After offering little feedback on Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s plan to ask voters to approve a permanent 1% sales tax increase at recent meetings, the Little Rock Board of Directors spent more than three hours discussing the proposal at its regular Tuesday agenda meeting. Much of the discussion was a continuation of an ongoing conversation on public safety that the board has been grappling with for months.
The mayor has proposed a tax plan that would generate an estimated $53 million with 34% going to parks and recreation, 12% going to fire and police, 12% going to infrastructure improvements, 9% going to the zoo, 8% going to early child care and education, 8% to economic development, 6% for information technology, 5% for capital improvements, 4% for affordable housing, and 2% percent for neighborhood programs and the Museum of Discovery. The board will vote Tuesday, May 4, on whether to send the proposal to voters with a July 13 election.
Vice-Mayor and Ward 5 Director Lance Hines said he wouldn’t support the tax if there wasn’t an additional $25 million added over 10 years to the public safety allocation. Hines said that money should go toward the Little Rock Police Department hiring two social workers, reinstating a $500 incentive to Little Rock residents who join the force and hiring dedicated COPP (community oriented police program) officers with whatever was left over.
At-large Directors Dean Kumpuris and Joan Adcock, Ward 3 Director Kathy Webb, Ward 4 Director Capi Peck, Ward 6 Director Doris Wright and Ward 7 Director BJ Wyrick all echoed Hines’ call for more COPP officers.
Adcock has often drummed the public safety beat the loudest. “Since 1994, I’ve never seen this much fear in the people of the city,” she told the mayor Tuesday. She said the Little Rock Police Department’s patrol division had 42 vacancies. Scott said that was inaccurate. She complained that he corrected her too often and said that “inaccurate” was another word for liar and she left the meeting.
During the public comment period, the mother of Devontay Allen, the 22-year-old man who was killed in Cheatham Park on Sunday, gut-wrenchingly talked about the loss of her only son and pleaded with the board to help the community.
Kumpuris later suggested that if a COPP officer had been riding his bike near the park the shooting might have been averted. At-large Director Antwan Phillips and Ward 2 Director Ken Richardson pushed back, saying COPP officers wouldn’t ever be ubiquitous. They both also said the city can’t police its way out of problems.
Phillips said not one constituent had suggested to him that the city needed more police officers (he later amended that to say one had after that person texted him during the meeting to remind him that he’d asked). He said he wouldn’t support $25 million for more police and he didn’t believe voters would either.
“We need to redefine how we define public safety,” Richardson said. Crime is the strongest where community is the weakest, he said. “We need to address public safety through community building.” He asked the board to move beyond thinking about public safety in a reactive way.
Scott repeatedly reminded the board that the city already devotes more than 50% of its general fund to public safety with the LRPD receiving the largest share of that at roughly $82 million per year. He noted that COPP officers had been moved in the last year to respond to members of the board imploring the LRPD to do something about street caravanning. “I get phone calls from you about caravanning but not about homicides. That has to change,” Scott said.
Hines and Webb also complained about what they said was insufficient public outreach ahead of the rollout of the tax plan. Hines said more money needed to go toward infrastructure and that the proposal needed to include the Little Rock Tech Park, which would like to expand. Kumpuris and Peck echoed that call. Scott said it didn’t make sense to include building more tech park when downtown has plenty of vacant real estate and when the tech park doesn’t yet have a fundraising plan. But he said there might be other ways the city could help the tech park.
Hines also derided the early childcare plan, saying he hadn’t encountered one constituent or member of the business community who supported it. He said it was a state and federal issue and the the city would be out of its lane to pursue it. Late in the meeting he passed around an alternative proposal that sounded very similar to the one I reported on last week (though it would entirely erase the early childhood plan and move $5 million into targeted neighborhood programs).
Webb asked about the status of the $37 million the city is set to receive as part of the American Rescue Plan. The city is expected to get the first half of the money May 10 and hopes to have detailed guidance on how it can be spent then, Scott said. The second half won’t come until 2022 and the funds must be spent by 2024.
Webb referenced Peter Kageyama’s book “For the Love of Cities” and said that it talked about cities having a hierarchy of needs much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for people: You’ve got take care of the basics before you do the aspirational work, she said, adding that for the last two years she’d been overwhelmed with issues from constituents related to public safety and functionality. She said the city needed to focus on the basics.
Phillips later responded saying he agreed, but added that voters elected him because they believe “We can do better than the basics. We’ve gotta move past the basics. Our city is better than basics. I don’t want to live in a basic city.
“We’re a smart, big enough city, where we can fix a pothole and address early childhood education. This is not an either or.”
Kumpuris urged Scott to wait to move forward on the tax plan until the city has clear guidance on how the federal relief money can be spent. Maybe it could go to some of the needs outlined in the proposal, he suggested. He also talked about the city’s investment into the Little Rock River Market, the Arts Center and elsewhere, emphasizing that public-private partnerships had been an important formula the city should continue.
Peck said Rock Region Metro should get funding in the tax and mentioned an idea of the transit agency starting a shuttle route on the weekends between downtown, the River Market, SoMa and perhaps elsewhere. She also emphasized “nuts and bolts,” adding to infrastructure and streets spending.
Peck and Wyrick said they were concerned about the tax not sunsetting. Scott said research shows that voters aren’t concerned about whether a tax sunsets. Wyrick also said she would rather the vote happen in a general election. She also suggested adding more to the infrastructure allotment, creating a funding stream for the targeted neighborhood program and spending more money to replace fire trucks.
Wright asked again for funding to improve ball fields at the West Central Community Center and said she wanted funding for targeted neighborhood development and needed to know how to access the funds. She said she didn’t want to be told money was unavailable down the road.
Ward 1 Director Erma Hendrix said board members had talked long and used a lot of jargon and told the mayor he should’ve expected as much dealing with a majority white board.
Scott thanked board members for feedback, complained that they’d stayed largely silent until now and promised to make tweaks to the plan in the coming days.
The agenda meeting followed a brief special called meeting where the ordinance to call the tax election received a second reading. The board often votes to suspend the rules and read the ordinance in succession at a single meeting, but again a motion to suspend the rules only received a motion and a second from Richardson and Phillips.