by Max Brantley
The morning outrage, courtesy of Barry Haas, who carefully follows the Central Arkansas Water Commission:
He was present for a commission meeting yesterday at which the Commission was asked for a 100 percent increase in the annual subsidy that water customers pay the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce — from $25,000 to $50,000. He said the Chamber was seeking a whopping $1.5 million, though I'm not clear if that's strictly in public subsidies or overall. A Chamber employee said it anticipates getting the majority of its "Stock in the Rock" development fund from private sources.
According to Barry, the Chamber is making the rounds of public agencies that support it for similar increases in support. The Little Rock budget this year currently is holding fast at the $200,000 annual taxpayer subsidy, but it's unknown what and when increases are planned to grab more of city taxpayer dollars. It will certainly seek a kickback for managing, from secret, the city sales tax campaign.
Haas said the Chamber will be making the rounds of other agencies with a hand out. I first wrote about this chamber shakedown in 2009. It extracted taxpayer and ratepayer money (unbeknownst to the public at large) from the city, Central Arkansas Water, the Sewer Committee, UALR and the Little Rock Port Authority, to the tune of $250,000 or so. n years past, County Judge Buddy Villines has been reluctant to commit county money to the fund-raising drive, in part because of the chamber's aggressive political stance. It's naturally pro-business, which means anti-labor. It has also taken a strong role in backing the corporate interests tearing down the Little Rock School District.
Accountability? It's non-existent. The Chamber won't specifically reveal how its existing tax subsidies are spent. It operated in the shadows to raise money for the city in a half-billion-dollar sales tax increase and then engaged a high-dollar attorney to defeat my effort at the state Ethics Commission to end the sham arrangement by which it laundered campaign money through a campaign consultant, the Markham Group, to avoid disclosing exactly how campaign money was spent.
This should be simple, but it's not in a city where the business community controls city government through a city board controlled by at-large representatives. This board, in turn, appoints members to several of the agencies giving public money to the chamber — water, sewer, port authority.
The chamber says this money is for economic development. THEIR kind of economic development naturally — anti-union, pro-corporate welfare incentive. Who can be against economic development? Not me. But the money paid the chamber can't be segregated from the chamber's other work on legislation contrary to the wishes of many in the community.
The chamber should raise its own money, not operate with a fat subsidy from taxpayers and ratepayers. Certainly not a subsidy arranged without meaningful public knowledge or input through the good offices of people nominally responsible to the public at large. "Everybody else does it" is not a legitimate argument for giving the chamber tax money or robbing banks.
I vote NO on a Chamber of Commerce tax.
PS: Do I need to remind you that Deltic Timber, a major supporter of the LR Chamber, is fighting the strongest measures for land use controls in the Lake Maumelle watershed? Graham Rich should be ashamed of himself.
PPS: A place to watch is the Technology Park Authority, created under a law written by the Chamber and stocked with members from Chamber leadership, including the chamber's executive director and former president, and the business establishment. It will be on the receiving end of $22 million from the new city sales tax. Might it be asked for handout, too? It would be a grotesque conflict of interest, but ...
Barry's note about the meeting:
At today's Central Arkansas Water Board meeting CEO Graham Rich made a presentation seeking an increased annual donation to the Chamber of Commerce from $25K to $50K. He mentioned the Chamber had also asked other entities — L.R. Wastewater, City of L.R., etc.- to pony up more money. The Chamber is trying to raise $1.5 million, according to Graham. You may want to ask Graham to send you his Powerpoint slides showing how the Chamber would supposedly use the money.
The CAW Board had quite a few questions and decided to table the request until next month's meeting. Eddie Powell seemed taken aback at a request for a 100% increase. Graham was unable to answer whether the Chamber was hitting everyone up for a 100% increase. A question was asked about whether or not CAW could legally give money to the Chamber for something not directly tied to CAW's mission —water. CAW contract attorney Tad Bohannon gave a squishy answer in response to that legal question. Graham pointed out 3 industries that had located in L.R. and generated more than $200K in annual revenue for CAW. But it was pointed out those industries located here before the Chamber started getting CAW money, that the Chamber may not have had anything to do with recruiting them in the first place, and also that CAW had given special deals to some of them (waived normal waterline installation expenses in the tens of thousands of dollars or more) upon request from the City of Little Rock, etc. Graham mentioned other towns (Tulsa, Oklahoma City) where the water utility gives the local Chamber even more than CAW does and what a wonderful arrangement it is. Interesting discussion and that the Chamber had Graham make their pitch for them. Harder for a Board to say no to their own CEO than some Chamber lackey?
I have no doubt the CAW Board will rubber stamp a Chamber donation again this year, but I'm not as sure it will be the increased $50K donation requested.
The Chamber is getting more efficient at shaking down public agencies than the Mafia.