The Little Rock Board of Directors voted Tuesday to call a special election September 14 to ask voters to approve a 1% sales tax increase, which would generate an estimated $53 million per year. But the meeting was marred by chaos and confusion.
The board considered three items related to the election: an ordinance to call the election, an ordinance that described how the tax would be levied and for how long and a nonbinding resolution that spells out how the city intends to spend the tax money. The ordinance to call the election passed, but an emergency clause on it failed. The ordinance that described the tax passed. And the resolution failed.
City Manager Bruce Moore asked City Attorney Tom Carpenter to explain the consequence of the emergency clause on the election ordinance failing. It now won’t officially go into effect for 30 days. “Whether that causes the county to delay anything, I don’t know,” Carpenter said.
Even without the emergency clause, when the ordinance goes into effect July 15, that still allows for the required 60 days to call an election (with a day to spare). But if there are means by which the Pulaski County Election Commission, which is controlled by Republicans who dislike special elections, can somehow throw up roadblocks, expect that.
The failure of the resolution has no practical effect, but looks awful politically. Mayor Frank Scott Jr. pitched the plan to the board in March and offered up an altered version in May based on feedback from board members. A week later, Ward 3 Director Kathy Webb made a motion to table consideration of the proposal in May for 60 days, which every board member aside from At-large Director Antwan Phillips and Ward 1 Director Erma Hendrix supported. But last week, Webb made the surprise announcement that she wanted to bring the matters back for a vote and on Friday the shape of the new plan showed up on the board’s agenda.
Mayor Scott initially proposed that the tax increase should be permanent, but the ordinance approved Tuesday calls for a 10-year sunset, something the business community and several board members had lobbied for. The amended resolution also included increased funding for the Museum of Discovery, downtown parking decks and the Downtown Little Rock Partnership’s Ambassador program. The scope of the planned $40 million spending on early childhood education was also altered.
Those changes inspired an unlikely coalition. At-large Director Dean Kumpuris, Ward 4 Director Capi Peck, Ward 7 Director BJ Wyrick, Phillips and Webb voted for both ordinances, their emergency clauses and the resolution. At-large Director Joan Adcock and Ward 5 Director and Vice-Mayor Lance Hines, who are frequently at odds with the mayor, voted against all the election matters. They were joined by Ward 6 Director Doris Wright, who has generally been an ally of Scott’s. It was harder to follow the votes of Ward 2 Director Ken Richardson and Hendrix, who had previously been seen as sure “yes” votes.
The ordinance to call the election passed 6-3 with Richardson voting present (same as a no) and only after Scott coaxed Hendrix into a yes vote. Amid the vote, Hendrix complained that the board needed more time to talk to constituents and called the vote a “push and shove deal.” Perhaps because of that frustration, she joined Richardson in voting present on the emergency clause, so the vote was 5-3 with two present. The mayor can break a tie vote, but the present votes meant there wasn’t a tie and he wasn’t able to vote.
The ordinance describing the parameters of the tax and the accompanying emergency clause passed 7-3 with Richardson and Hendrix voting yes.
On the resolution that outlined how the city planned to spend the tax, Hendrix voted no and Richardson voted present. That again prevented the mayor from breaking the tie. A motion from Phillips to expunge the vote, needing eight votes, failed 7-3 with Hendrix and Richardson both supporting the motion.
Before the vote on the resolution, Hines said he was disheartened that the board was sending the proposal to voters. He said, 10 years ago, the last time the board referred a tax increase to voters, directors came together to shape a proposal that met the needs of every ward in the city. During a lull, Scott quickly called for a vote on the resolution, which led to Hines angrily interjecting to say he wasn’t finished talking.