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Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola spent an hour with me Monday afternoon to answer questions about the $40 million economic development fund now envisioned for the city's sales tax package.
So far — though it's subject to change — the city is talking about a ¾-cent sales tax increase for operations and a half-cent, to run for eight years, to pay for capital projects.
The sum of those taxes together will still put the city rate below 2 cents on the dollar, less than many other cities in Arkansas.
It will be hard for me not to vote for a sales tax increase. See: A collapsing police station, ancient radio system and police force dozens short of patrol officers; a fire department in need of a new station; no street repair program; underfinanced code enforcement and parks.
But ... I'm suspicious about that $40 million pot for economic development, not very specifically outlined as "job recruitment, workforce training, port expansion and economic development infrastructure."
Job recruitment and workforce training are capital costs? Port expansion might be and Stodola says improvements there could take $25 million, though details are lacking. He wants money to help UAMS and UALR establish a technology park. Infrastructure — sewers, roads, rail lines — is inevitably necessary for major projects. Money also could clear blighted areas for redevelopment or match money from the governor's quick-closing fund.
In short, the message is: The city needs jobs and voters can trust city leaders with doling out their money to attract it. The mayor insists the City Board will have strict control. There will be return-of-investment guidelines. Incentives will be tied to private investments. Companies will be encouraged to enlist workers in Little Rock, not suburban communities. Clawbacks of money on broken promises are mentioned. Unmentioned is an absolute promise of total transparency in spending, but Stodola promised to look into that.
The city has its annual dole to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce to show for how it feels about transparency. It took an all-out tantrum to get the tiniest disclosure from the chamber on where taxpayers' money goes. Surprise. It subsidizes the pay of people who take political positions against the interest of voters — on universal health care, working conditions, public schools.
What's lacking, too, is some indication that the most fortunate in the community are being asked to contribute in a way commensurate with the disproportionate burden a sales tax puts on poor people. Business gets incentives. Taxpayers pay in hopes of being trickled upon. Public-private partnerships too often have been like the Verizon Arena. The public built it with tax money. The private contributions were payments for tax deductible marketing expenses and fancy perks (naming rights and skyboxes).
Stodola says the business community may contribute a pot of money to campaign for the tax. This is small change. Some whopping private investment or major philanthropic stroke (see a philanthropist's gift of a new performing arts hall in Kansas City) would go a long way toward making the struggling taxpayer feel like all really are in this together.
Stodola did say this: Though he remains a defender of the Chamber of Commerce $200,000 welfare payment, he said passage of new operating money wouldn't mean new chamber riches. "It's not my intent to give them any more money," Stodola said. Could I get the guarantors of Little Rock government by the establishment — the at-large and silk-stocking-ward directors — to sign a pledge to that effect?