Columns » Max Brantley

Bah, humbug

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A column in a newspaper dated Dec. 25 should be a gimme. Like:

• A Christmas gift list. Example: A bigger wallet for book-selling, TV-talking Mike Huckabee.

• A warm reminiscence of a Christmas past in simpler times. Such as when everybody in my family came down with food poisoning from an uncle's gift of a remaindered box of drugstore chocolates.

But, no, there are local issues to consider as the year draws to a close and as I anticipate a couple of weeks off.

Topping the list is a repeat of last week's topic. It's complicated. But the North Little Rock School Board gets it. And so does businessman Frank Fletcher, owner of the Wyndham Hotel. They  may go to court to challenge Mayor Pat Hays' effort to bend the redevelopment finance law into almost unrecognizable shape to provide a parking deck for a would-be hotel developer.

The redevelopment law was written by now-Attorney General Dustin McDaniel mostly to find a way that property taxes on Jonesboro developer Bruce Burrow's shopping centers would go to improvements for his private projects rather than the public schools.

In theory, the law allows a developer to capture some school property taxes in the name of encouraging developments in blighted areas.. Mayor Hays has turned this idea upside down. He wants to take school taxes from a completed project built without government help — The $39 million Enclave apartments — to build a parking deck for a hotel five blocks away. The Enclave had no need to be in a redevelopment district to be built. The money should go to schools.

Mayor Hays has set a New Year's Eve special City Council meeting to complete his assault on the public trust. He undoubtedly hopes few will attend so that he may rush in — 400 minutes before it is too late under the law — to claim The Enclave's tax money. 

If Hays succeeds in his hurry-up offense, it will set a damaging precedent statewide.

Using his fanciful scheme as a guide, cities will be able to declare any promising land a redevelopment district. Then, when developers build a project on that land, the city can step in and claim the increased school taxes for use somewhere else in the city — even miles away — just so long as a city street connects the two parcels of land. Under Hays' theory, the street connecting makes unconnected parcels legally “contiguous.”

This is a rank perversion of the redevelopment finance law — a contrivance to let private developers keep their property taxes. Don't you wish you could do that on your home property taxes?

The scheme has legal as well as ethical problems. The Constitution says taxes voted for schools may be used only for schools. Some bond daddies think the redevelopment finance amendment superseded that rule. I don't. But if a court disagrees with me, it will be only the beginning of schemes to pirate school taxes for developer daydreams.

I know this is a hard subject to follow.  Just understand that Mayor Hays wants to take school money to aid a private developer with no promise of anything for the schools in return. Understand, too, that there are mayors all over Arkansas hungry to do the same thing.

If the hotel parking deck is the boon to downtown Hays says it is, downtown property owners should happily pay an improvement district tax millage to build it. Not school kids.

 

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