by Max Brantley
Leslie Newell Peacock reports from City Hall:
Mayor Mark Stodola, surrounded by city employees holding signs saying "Thank You," called a press conference at 11 a.m. today to thank supporters of the penny sales tax, and declared it the “start of a new day” for the city.
Stodola said he was making “solemn commitment to stand true to our word” about how the new tax dollars would be spent and was “committed to transparency.” He repeated that he would appoint a citizens’ committee to oversee the expenditures and “provide an extra layer of trust” for citizens.
Stodola scoffed at “naysayers” who characterized the election as “secret” (city leaders have refused to call on the pro-tax committee that spent $112,000 before the election to disclose specifics on the spending) and the turnout slim (he was referring to the Arkansas Blog, which noted that the campaign was targeted rather than publicized through major media spending, and called the 20 percent turnout pitiful). The mayor said the turnout was larger than he expected and was a “sweet victory” with “broad community support,” from business, neighborhoods, black and white.
The black and white part doesn’t appear to be so broad, a look at precinct turnout shows. Dozens of black neighborhoods voted against the tax. City Director Doris Wright, who represents the John Barrow neighborhood and surrounding area, said the vote was split in her precincts, with slightly more nos than yesses. She attributed that to confusion on the subject; contributing to that, she said, was that Thirty-sixth Street was “blanketed with signs” by the anti-tax coalition. Max wrote about the turnout earlier today.
Asked after the press conference whether the city would consider creating a website to track tax revenues and spending on both the operational and capital side, as the federal government did with stimulus funds, Stodola said that was the plan. Director Wright said she had suggested that to the mayor precisely because of the usefulness and openness of the federal stimulus website. How precise that tracking will be on the city’s website will be of interest. Wright, who has advocated for several years for a community center in her ward that will now get $6 million infusion from the new tax, said she has told her constituents to hold her accountable that the money is spent in the manner promised and “I’m holding Mr. Moore and the mayor accountable” as well.
Ward meetings to get input on street project priorities are next. Stodola said he hopes to have the oversight committee in place by January, when the tax revenues start to come it. He said there will be representation by all wards as well as some at-large seats.
Most of the city board attended the press conference and Stodola thanked them by name. Later they posed with firefighters in front of a yellow firefighters union van. Firefighters will get a huge boost from the tax, in the way of manpower and two new stations.
City Director Brad Cazort is the zoo’s advocate on the city board, and he said he was happy the zoo will get the funds it needs (the city has said it will dedicate $8 million to capital needs over 10 years and $1.6 million in operating revenues) to earn accreditation. He described the tax revenues as “seed money” that will allow the zoo foundation to raise more money for zoo improvements. Such as? “I’m pushing for hippos,” he said.