Columns » Max Brantley

A strong mayor

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I wish Little Rock had mayor-council government and a vibrant leader like Pat Hays, with a ballpark, arena and reviving Main Street to show for his toil.

But, yes, there is a downside to a powerful mayor. Richard Daley, for example, operated Chicago with brutal efficiency, emphasis on brutal. Pat Hays is no Richard Daley. But he's exhibiting similar pigheadedness and disdain for the law.

Hays and his enablers have thrown the environment, the regulatory process, sound traffic planning, financial prudence and fairness to competitors out the window in trying to build a sporting goods store in Dark Hollow. A lawsuit — not to mention the scarcity of money to build a half-baked but still monstrously expensive traffic solution for the fishing tackle store on Interstate 40 —  has put this project in the deep-freeze.

Now a threatened lawsuit, by the North Little Rock School Board and perhaps other interveners, may put the brakes on his plan to build a parking deck for private hotel developers with help from a tax increment finance district.

Let me try to simplify. An unused TIF district in downtown North Little Rock is home to a new $30 million apartment complex, built with no help from the city or the tax increment district. Hays hurried up to create a new TIF district, including the old one, before midnight Dec. 31 so he could claim the school taxes from that new apartment complex to finance his parking deck.  This will take hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from schools. It requires a crazy district gerrymander to satisfy the legal requirement that TIF districts must be contiguous. These two — one with the hotel and the one with The Enclave apartments — are five blocks apart. Hays ties them with city streets. Even Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who pushed the TIF legislation in 2005 to help developers, thinks this is a gerrymander too far.

Hays' legal loopholes are less offensive than recent bullying by his stooge, City Attorney Jason Carter. According to The Times of North Little Rock, Carter has said (undoubtedly prompted by the mayor) that the school district might be punished if it sues over the bogus TIF district. He threatened to jerk police officers from campus security duty. He hinted darkly about city support for athletic facilities.

Here, Hays made the political personal. He won't hurt School Board members by removing police officers — he will hurt children. He won't hurt School Board members by ending support for athletic facilities. He will hurt everyone who gets on the walking track and enjoys the other public benefits the facilities provide.

Hays is nothing if not mulish. He and Carter no longer take calls from me, because I criticize them. That's fine. But it is not fine for the mayor to punish kids when he doesn't get his way. It is not fine for him to poach money, as if it were his own, that is produced by a public vote explicitly and solely for school operation.

The mayor has options. He could put only the hotel in a TIF district and let it recapture only its tax money for the parking deck, perhaps augmented by improvement district taxes. The School Board has not threatened suit against all TIFs. It just wants the apartment complex to benefit the school district, as it should.

Boss Hays not only won't negotiate, he uses kids as hostages. Did I say Pat Hays was no Richard Daley? I should have added — yet.

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