Columns » Max Brantley

How much is LR hurting?

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I reported recently that Little Rock police had stepped up patrol presence on weekend nights in the River Market because groups of youths were creating problems – from hassling of pedestrians to assaults.

I wrote sympathetically of a police force 40 people short of authorized strength.

This brought a rejoinder from former city hall administrator and permanent civic gadfly Jim Lynch. He thinks the city is exaggerating its financial condition in hopes of winning a sales tax election vote in September. He thinks the city shouldn't be seeking more than a half-cent increase, rather than the penny sought for operations and capital spending (a quarter-cent would expire after 10 years).

True, Lynch says, the police budget has been reduced by $775,000 to help in budget balancing. But he figures that accounts for about 16 rookie cops, at $37,000 starting pay and overhead. In other words, a lot of the shortfall in staffing is routine turnover.

Further, Lynch's budget sleuthing shows that city revenues are not only NOT declining in 2011, they are running more than $2 million ahead of last year. Combine that with general fund revenues running about $1.4 million in excess of spending and a $9 million permanent reserve fund created by an ordinance sponsored by Larry Lichty several years ago and Lynch figures the city is really sitting on a cushion of about $13 million.

"More than enough to buy a few cops!" Lynch proclaims.

Lynch isn't fighting police spending or careful budgeting that produces a reserve. He's fighting the murkiness of City Hall budget discussions. He thinks most managers in any business know that expenditures typically will fall short of budgets because of turnover and vacancies. This provides wiggle room. Some businesses intentionally leave slots open to create spare money.

Still, despite that welcome breathing room, city hall budgeters are using supposed staff shortages to plead for hundreds of millions in tax increases.

So when police complain about openings on the nearly 700-person police force, Lynch hears tax propaganda and more of the dissembling that has made voters distrustful of city hall. "City leaders cannot stick to the truth and adopt a transparent attitude in our local government," he said.

Another example: Little Rock officials lead people to believe fire insurance rates will increase without completion of promised new fire stations. Not true, Lynch said. The rating system is based mostly on water pressure and hydrant pressure – governed by Central Arkansas Water, not the city – and system improvements already underway. Fire station placement accounts for only four points on a 100-point rating scale.

Lynch says organized opposition will form to the tax increase. The opposition will be about distrust. Remember the City Hall mantra "growth pays for itself"? If that's so, he asks, why is a city without meaningful impact fees begging tax increases to pay for parks, fire service and more to serve annexed areas?

Lynch is also not inclined to trust the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce with $200,000 in tax money when it has opposed minimum wage increases, health care reform and consumer finance protection. And that's chump change compared to the $38 million economic development slush fund, which, as proposed by Mayor Mark Stodola, would be overseen almost exclusively by a panel drawn from the secretive, unaccountable chamber's ranks.

Concludes Lynch:

"Mayor Stodola says next year's budget has an $8 million hole and instead he is proposing a permanent $31 million per year revenue increase as a solution. The difference is $23 million, if my math is correct. No trust, no $23 million!"

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