County Judge Buddy Villines deftly orchestrated passage last week of a measure to put a quarter-cent county sales tax increase on a special election ballot Sept. 12.
He enlisted a couple of Republican justices of the peace to get the votes necessary for speedy Quorum Court approval. Other Republicans intend to wield the tax increase as a weapon in fall JP elections.
Persuading the Quorum Court is one thing. This bunch has blithely spent up millions in county surpluses the last few years — essentially deficit spending. Did county employees usually get a generous pay increase? Did they fail to get good benefits, from health insurance to holidays? Has there — until the bloodletting on the jail staff this year — ever been meaningful county job reductions, much less a serious evaluation of whether the courthouse is stocked with too many patronage jobs?
The county’s profligate operation — it has a new downtown building project underway as I write, not to mention the famous bike bridge — leaves a slightly sour taste when it asks for more money. Rather than tighten belts years ago and make the jail a top priority, county officials did nothing. The demand for jail space isn’t that much greater and the number of beds in operation is down substantially. County revenue also has increased, thanks in part to an elastic sales tax that comes mostly from within Little Rock and North Little Rock.
Still, few deny the need for more money. I was impressed by Jim Lynch, a reliable progressive, who urged a go-slower approach. Why not raise the tax an eighth of a cent for jail operation and the other eighth of a cent only temporarily, for construction. This would be a gesture to the working people who pay a disproportionate share of their incomes in sales taxes. The sales tax rate on a Little Rock hamburger is now 9.5 cents on the dollar. In North Little Rock, it’s a whopping 12 cents on the dollar.
The lack of jail space isn’t driving the violent crime rate. Violent criminals are still locked up. But workaday burglars and thieves often revolve through jail doors.
County government might be more persuasive if it had been a better steward. But part of Villines’ argument that a full quarter-cent is needed rests on the projection that the county should plan on a 4 percent increase in costs every year forever. That’s a huge amount when compounded. Look at your pay 10 years ago and tell me if it has grown at a compounded annual rate of 4 percent.
The tax increase would be a windfall for city governments. They’ll be freed from annual contributions to jail operations. In Little Rock, that means $2 million a year. The city has plenty of needs, but it would be nice to hear specifics, not just loose talk about “public safety.”
It will take a PR genius or a bloody crime rate to pass this tax, particularly on the north side of the river, home of a new ballpark and higher electric rates. Absent a ready alternative, I’ll vote for the tax so criminals will be locked up. But I’d lie if I said I had complete confidence in the county’s ability to handle wisely a tax increase that will double the jail budget.