Columns » Max Brantley

Another good year for Chamber

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The holiday season is happier this year for Little Rock city employees than 2009.

Thanks to functional deficit spending (a windfall from bond refinance and reserves), most employees will get a 4 percent pay raise and there will be none of the firings Christmas 2009 brought.

It is always a good year at City Hall for the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. Mayor Mark Stodola made it clear from the outset that the chamber would continue to receive its taxpayer subsidy for a sham "services contract" to work on economic development. The contract provides that city money won't support the chamber's pro-corporate lobbying effort and that the Freedom of Information Act will be observed. The former is probably not true; the latter certainly is not.

Between Little Rock taxpayers and Little Rock sewer customers, the chamber receives $225,000 for an "economic development fund." How is it spent, precisely? Chamber President Jay Chesshir (Mayor Stodola's Paris dining companion courtesy of publicly paid airport credit cards last year) won't say. And Stodola won't make him. He won't even require him to name the employees receiving a hefty public subsidy for nearly a half-million in salary, retirement and group health insurance. Is the city subsidizing workers whose mission includes standard chamber practice -- beating down unions, deriding the public schools and fighting taxes and environmental regulation and workers comp benefits? The public isn't allowed to know.

I do know this. The public's money — which is of no measurable value in economic development — could be put to measurable use in the city of Little Rock.

The city has 201 vacant jobs. Many of them have duties very close to the people who pay the taxes. To name a few:

The city is short 11 code enforcement officers. You could hire at least six, at $33,349 each, from the Chamber's $225,000 public welfare payment.

The city is short eight parks maintenance workers, who make about $26,000. You could fill all those jobs and have enough leftover to fill the urban forester slot half time.

We're nine firefighters short. At $33,000 starting pay, the chamber's dole could cover almost seven.

The police force is short 16 patrol officers and many higher level officers, dispatchers and the like. A patrol officer starts at $37,000. Public money given the chamber would pay six.

And so it goes. We need a 911 call taker at $32,168. The city fleet is short mechanics. They make $34,793. The zoo is short animal keepers, slotted at $29,211. Happy about your garbage service? Problems may be due to the five-person shortage in the "refuse collector" force. Garbage men and women make about $25,000. The city could fill those slots and have plenty left over from the chamber's handout. But that's not how the Old Boys Club works. Good suits must be served first.

If throwing public money at economic development efforts and corporate welfare were tickets to prosperity, Little Rock would be Silicon Valley. Here's a better plan. The people's government should invest in an educated workforce and a sparkling, safe city with good streets, world-class parks, rational zoning and such amenities as good public transportation. Let the suits invest THEIR money, not ours, in activities to enhance their profits (the stated mission of the chamber). That's how the free enterprise system is supposed to work.

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