Two items brought forward by directors were added to the Little Rock Board of Directors’ agenda at the last minute through a supermajority vote Tuesday. Both were approved. One called for increased transparency in city contracts, and the other will implement a downtown ambassador program. The board also talked about a business development near River Mountain Park and plans for the remaining federal pandemic relief funds.
Vice Mayor Lance Hines sponsored an ordinance that called for more board involvement on professional service contracts — agreements with companies that complete services like consulting and studies for the city. According to the ordinance, a list of the professional service contracts will be delivered to the mayor and the members of the board every Monday, or the next day of business if City Hall is closed. If any member has questions about a contract, they can request to have a discussion at the next public board meeting within 14 days of being notified.
The board approved the ordinance and its emergency clause, which means the ordinance will be effective immediately. Hines said he wanted to approach the ordinance with “more of a scalpel than a sledgehammer.”
The board also approved At-large Director Joan Adcock’s last-minute resolution that would set aside $500,000 in the 2023 budget for a downtown ambassador program. The ambassadors would be tasked with greeting and assisting tourists to improve their Little Rock experience. Only Director Ken Richardson voted no, but Director Antwan Phillips expressed dissatisfaction that the resolution bypassed the regular procedural steps that cut out valuable input it could have provided.
“I’m concerned that as a board, we could allocate $500,000 without a presentation [and] some of our colleagues having questions unanswered,” Phillips said. “When there are other things in different parts of town, there are a lot of questions, a lot of studying, a lot of ‘Let’s wait.’ I just want to express publicly that as a board, sometimes everything happens very fast, but when there’s other parts of town or other projects, we’re ready to push the brakes. … I’m bothered by that.”
Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said that he supports the ambassador program, but with the 2023 budget not yet presented to city leaders, the final dollar amount for the program could come from multiple resources. The city’s Advertising and Promoting Commission will discuss funds for an ambassador program Wednesday, Phillips said.
More than an hour of Tuesday’s meeting was spent discussing a potential development near Pleasant Valley on Cantrell in Ward 4, which ultimately led to a vote to approve rezoning. Representatives from the developer Colliers spoke in favor of “The Middle” development, which would rezone the land from office space to mixed commercial businesses. Development plans include three restaurants with the ability to have drive-thru services, one restaurant with designated outdoor seating, a possible seven-story hotel and five-story office building.
Sketches of the potential development also include greenery, a landscaped water feature and a walkable mall-like area.
Director Capi Peck requested that her colleagues vote no on the proposed ordinance based on input from her constituents. Three members of the public spoke in opposition to the development plans Tuesday with concerns about the traffic it would bring to the Walton Heights area, safety for pedestrians traveling to River Mountain Park and if the developer’s traffic study was done well.
The traffic study surveyed three times of day; from 7-9 a.m., noon-1 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. Citizen Jamie Norton expressed her concerns about the schools in the surrounding area and how the traffic study didn’t analyze the school pick-up time. The construction in the area also likely skewed the traffic results, as many have avoided the area, the residents said. Citizen Pete Marvin went as far as to say that the development site was set to produce a “very disastrous stifling of traffic.”
The residents who spoke against the development said that they weren’t opposed to any development on the site, but they were weary of this specific plan. They asked that the board move to defer the vote to a later meeting after a more comprehensive traffic study was completed.
In a 6-4 vote, the ordinance for the development passed. Directors Capi Peck, BJ Wyrick, Joan Adcock and Kathy Webb voted no.
Permits, pandemic funds and struggles at the fire department
In a 7-3 vote, the board also approved to increase the threshold required for building permits in the city from $500 to $5,000. An emergency clause on the item did not pass, which means that the ordinance will be put in place in 30 days. Under this ordinance, any construction up to $5,000 can be completed without a building permit. In addition, fences less than 7 feet tall, storage buildings, residential roofs and any type of shed less than 200 square feet will also not require a building permit.
Talk for the allocation of the remaining $5.5 million in the city’s American Rescue Funds allotment centered mostly around the Little Rock Fire Department. Chief Delphone Hubbard said on Tuesday that the $19.5 in millage bond money allocated to the fire department will cover a lot of what his department needs. A majority of the fleet is made up of “unrepairable fire trucks,” Hubbard said. “We’re at bare minimum as far as the ability to operate on safe equipment.”
The new fire equipment from the bond funds will take over a year to be received. In the meantime, some fire stations have already started working out of pick-up trucks. Director Virgil Miller spoke out about his dissatisfaction that the fleet got to this level.
“As a citizen, I am outraged and frustrated that I am hearing about the poor condition of our fleet and how it got here,” Miller said. “Maybe I am going to call out some people that have been on this board forever. How could this happen?”
He continued, “To the citizens of Little Rock, I just want to apologize for the condition of our fire equipment at this point. I think it is outrageous. I think it is inexcusable. I don’t know how it happened, but I want to make sure that going forward we don’t find ourselves in this position again.”
Fire Services Director Willie Hinton said that in order to resolve the department’s issue, and keep it resolved, about $6.5 million will need to be budgeted for police and fire every year. He compared Little Rock to Knoxville, Tennessee, which has a yearly replacement plan.
“I think we all believe in public safety — police and fire,” Director BJ Wyrick said. “I think you’re exactly right. We need to start putting our money where our mouth is and start making sure that we keep replacements going.”
The budget conversation was not extensive as the board was well into four hours of discussion. City Attorney Tom Carpenter did propose an allocation for a personal secretary, “which I’ve never had,” he said. “It’s getting kind of hard to keep up with everything.” Carpenter also said that the chief deputy and one other deputy at the city attorney’s office recently resigned for jobs with the federal government.