Operations? Capital? Both? Neither? 

If you want better streets, you have to vote for a research park.

The Arkansas Times is as good a place as any to illustrate the divided thinking on the city's penny sales tax to be voted on Sept. 13 (early voting started Tuesday).

The Times editorial board has endorsed the tax (which is itself divided: 5/8ths of a cent for city operations and 3/8ths for capital needs, the latter to be collected for 10 years), but Times senior editor Max Brantley has been fairly biting, characterizing, for example, the economic development portion of the capital tax as a "steaming pile of bull."

From talks with civic group heads, friends and political types — certainly not a scientific survey — it appears that community-minded people who usually don't mind paying taxes are swallowing hard this time, choking particularly on the capital tax. Here's one reason why: Should the combined penny increase tax pass and meet revenue projections of a 2 percent increase per year, the city will be awash in money — $500 million over 10 years. The penny would add $50 million a year to a city whose operating budget is now $191 million — a 26 percent increase. That's a pile of money for the city board and mayor to spend.

Not all are ambivalent. Businessmen, particularly realtors, uniformed and other overburdened employees of the city, and university types who support the research park funding included in the capital tax — those who stand to gain something — resoundingly support the penny; activists, like those who formed the underfunded but persistent "$500 Million Tax — Too Much!" ballot committee, think the penny is excessive and the city can't be trusted to spend money in declining areas of town.

Mayor Mark Stodola and the city board of directors, sensing that after three years of flat tax revenues (no longer do people in growing cities around Little Rock need to come here to shop at big box stores) and cutbacks in city spending and jobs voters might be receptive to raising the current half-penny sales tax (approved in 1994, it is the lowest in the state, as everyone knows by now), voted in July to call an election. To balance the budget, the city has left 230 jobs vacant (including uniformed personnel) and cut back on maintenance, funding to outside agencies and money for crime prevention and intervention programs. It's made one-time transfers of millions of dollars from solid waste and fleet funds to the general fund to make up for tax revenues that didn't rise to expectations and utility franchise fees lowered by state law a couple of years ago. Revenues are projected to come up $8 million short this year; the city came up short in budget years 2007, 2008 and 2009 as well.

There was only one no vote, from Ward 2 Director Ken Richardson, and one present vote, from Ward 1 Director Erma Hendrix. Ward 7 Director B.J. Wyrick tried but failed to separate out the economic development tax.

There are some obvious needs that all can agree should be addressed. The streets are in bad repair. Code enforcement is stretched past the limit. The fire department is using a 1976 ladder truck whose ladder is off limits to firefighters. The radio tower used by police, fire and ambulance to communicate is antiquated; a lightning strike put it out of business for a while last year. Our parks go unmowed and unkempt for lack of maintenance dollars.

The woes are city policies come home to roost, long time activists Jim Lynch and Kathy Wells say, the proof that growth does not pay for itself, contrary to what the city leadership has said in annexing land without imposing impact fees on new development. What the city is proposing, Lynch said, is a "huge, record-breaking tax increase for the same old, same old ... no changes in growth policies." Wells hit the roof recently at a Downtown Neighborhood Association debate on the tax with Lynch and Stodola when the mayor suggested that the downtown Ward 1 had grown in population. (It turns out he was thinking of certain census tracts within the ward.)


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