Nobody would put a figure on the amount of new sales tax revenue Little Rock would need to pull itself out of the hole it will find itself in next year if nothing is done. But city directors, meeting today for a "workshop" at City Hall, seem united behind the idea that Little Rock is going to have to increase its (comparatively) measly half-cent sales tax if it wants to fill vacancies in the Police Department (36), replace the 20-year-old analog emergency radio system — so old that spare parts are difficult to find — fill potholes and pave the streets, mow the grass, build sidewalks, repair aging city buildings and aging drainage systems, etc. etc. etc.
According to a 61-page presentation to the board by City Manager Bruce Moore, the city has since 2008 used nearly $16 million in one-time funds to balance the budget, including $4.2 million in 2011 from refunded debt service savings, "vacancy savings" (leaving jobs unfilled), and fleet transfers. That money is gone, Vice Mayor Dean Kumpuris said, and given that next year's budget will include a contracted 3 percent increase for fire and police uniformed officers, "it looks like we have two options ... cutting bodies or coming back with adequate funding ... We're going to have to pay for what we need or start going down as a city."
City directors will hold public hearings in each ward in April to take the pulse of the citizens on their support for a tax increase, and if so what services they want funded first. Kumpuris and Mayor Mark Stodola batted around the idea of a "sunsetted" tax for capital needs, and Kumpuris stressed whatever tax is passed for capital expenditures — like building the West Little Rock and Southwest Fire Stations — must be tied to new dollars for future maintenance, noting that the city has been "correctly criticized" for not maintaining new projects.
Stodola sketched out a rough timeline that would put the public hearings into May, draft an ordinance over the summer an put the tax to a vote by August or September, a speed that City Director Ken Richardson said would be "Herculean' to achieve. Directors B.J. Wyrick and Brad Cazort said the board should go back to the public again after the first round of hearings "to say this is what we heard you want," as Wyrick put it, to insure that the ordinance matches the wants of the people.
Moore's presentation of "priority needs," both capital and operational, for the city, included such things (besides those mentioned) as filling vacant positions in police, fire, public works and other city departments, building needs, including a new police headquarters and the 12th Street station and new fire stations in West and Southwest Little Rock, bringing the city's parks up from their pitiful Class C designation by restoring cut positions and implementing Master Plan improvements.
The city's half-cent sales tax, the lowest of Arkansas's cities, produces about $22 million in revenues.