Debate is underway about a Little Rock sales tax proposal to raise a half-billion-dollars over eight years for operating and capital needs. Only a demented Tea Partyer could look around the city and not see a need for a great number of the priorities listed by city officials to be financed by new taxes.
But only those without memories should vote on this issue without mulling the poor city leadership that brought us to this pass — a short-sighted growth policy that didn't provide the means to pay for the growth as it occurred.
Jim Lynch, a former city planner, academic and long-time participant in such debates, sent me a note over the weekend recounting the fight to impose growth impact fees to avoid whopper tax packages for fire stations, parks and more required for growth areas. An edited version follows. It's worth a read.
FROM JIM LYNCH
I write to offer a perspective about current activities at LR City Hall (sales tax proposal) and long pending,
overdue reforms to our municipal government.
First I refer your attention to the attached map which I prepared in the last few days (it outlines western annexations in Little Rock over the last couple of decades). Myself and others as members and leaders of the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods during the decade of the 1990s appeared at countless City Board meetings an public hearings regarding pending large annexations of vacant, new territory to our city. These, for the most part, are the successive annexations demanded by Deltic Timber to launch its Chenal Valley development. In fact, after learning about the first giant annexation in 1989, residents in older, established neighborhoods organized the Coalition of LR Neighborhoods (May 1990) to mobilize a more effective voice. We are not opposed to annexations per se, however, it was clear from our experience with police, fire, code inspection and other city services that our push to improve older, existing neighborhoods was to be made all the tougher with huge new areas added to the city.
During the 1990s decade the Coalition raised specific questions about the financial ability of the city to carry these new territories and also adequately serve existing neighborhoods. At every turn we were admonished that "growth pays for itself" and that the new territory would have little or "no impact" on city services and finances.
Last Tuesday Mayor Stodola announced a $500 million sales tax proposal package (one half billion dollars!) which includes expenditures for new fire stations and personnel in the far west region of Little Rock. Further, so much of the package is vague and unspecified I fear that, if approved, citizens can anticipate further, uninterrupted subsidies to land development in WLR.
Last week I talked directly to Mayor Stodola about the city's previous promises to the contrary and vigorously stated that myself and other advocates, because of our city hall's direct and pointed rejection of our arguments in previous years, were sick and tired and City Hall's broken promises. I reminded him of the specific annexation controversies and the exact issues (water, sewer, fire, police, streets and affordable housing) long promised as "no problem whatsoever" as City Hall repeatedly tumbled all over itself to make Deltic Timber happy.
And now we need hundreds of millions of new taxes to finance city government adequately, according to Mayor Stodola.
Although Michael Keck is now gone from the City Board, Dean Kumpuris, Joan Adcock, BJ Wyrick, Brad Czort each have long enough tenures to know also the details and bear full responsibility for this record of broken commitments.
I reminded Mayor Stodola that City Hall could have taken another, more rational, course decades ago. Even when Mark Stodola was serving as City Attorney in the mid 1980s, a consultant to the LR city planning department recommended road impact fees for Little Rock. Further I told our Mayor that currently Conway, Fayetteville, Greenland, and Siloam Springs have adopted impact fees for street, fire, police, park, water and sewer services. Impact fees are fair, rational and widely used across the nation to respond to exactly the kind of growth scenarios we find in Little Rock.
I listened to your AT podcast yesterday and I remember your saying you likely would be talking to Mayor Stodola next week. I ask you to consider and hope you will raise the Impact Fee financing issue with him. He knows this is an equitable approach to growth financing. During our recent talk the Mayor offered no refutation to my history of city hall events or current policies in Conway, et al. I told Mayor Stodola that policy reform on the Impact Fee issue was vital to winning any support among myself and others I could influence for any amount of new city taxes. He asked that we talk again, sometime.
Local developers, of course, are dinosaurs on the issue and unfortunately Stodola listens to them, I know. Deltic, homebuilders, and allies refuse rational discussion of the issue, in my experience. We have long needed real municipal leadership on the issue but instead are confronted every five to seven years with multi-million tax hike proposals that will continue the status quo.
Leslie Peacock of the Times wrote about the protracted debate at a Wastewater financing task group in 2008 where I found myself exhausted explaining impact fees and trying as hard as I could to gain agreement. The Wastewater consultants (from Kansas City) were in complete agreement and the impact fee policy was recommended although it has yet to be adopted by anyone.
Although I have been a supporter of Mayor Stodola, I am disappointed by the lack of "city hall reform" on this and other fronts. He has pushed through a couple of small items (getting A&P funds to help the General Fund) but other items seem not at all on his radar. Growth and development financing is a tough issue, but he signed up for the top job at City Hall and he ought not to be given a pass. We have been talking about it for 25 years or more! Little Rock deserves much better, in my judgement.
I also will send a one-page copy of a 1996 meeting notes from a Coalition of LR Neighborhoods where Wastewater's Reggie Corbitt told us that once the new Maumelle treatment plant was in place, it would open up all of western Pulaski County to urban development. Reggie said he fully expected that, over time, LR would grow to twice its current size, adding 110 square miles (the city is now 125 square miles). Without some reform in development financing, (impact fees !) I can well imagine where the half-billion sales tax dollars will be headed in the future.