On the surface, impact fees sound like a good idea: make growth pay for itself by “taxing those who cause it.” But when you peel back the onion, you'll soon realize these taxes don't make sense for a number of reasons.
The Arkansas Times article on sewer rates referred to impact fees as “welcome stranger” taxes because they're levied on new housing. But since most new area homes are purchased or built by those in our own community, a more appropriate name would be “welcome neighbor.” After all, a wastewater impact fee would be born mainly by those who have supported this infrastructure for years. Instead, proponents would rather have us believe that we're growing at such a fast clip there's no other alternative. Just listen when they compare us to Bentonville and Fayetteville and you'll understand what I mean. But with Little Rock's 1 percent annual population growth (most of whom buy pre-existing homes that have no impact fee), it's hard to justify such a comparison.
Moreover, communities with established fees have proven them to be ineffective and inconsistent. Take Naples, Fla., for instance. In the first quarter of its 2008 fiscal year, the city collected 3.5 percent of its budgeted impact fee revenue or just enough to pave the parking lot of a new treatment plant. Why so low? Because they did not anticipate a massive housing slow down resulting in a shortfall of millions. Now they're faced with some hard choices: find other sources of funding, cut programs or significantly raise fees to average out losses.
Lastly, impact fees contribute to sprawl. It's an unintended but no less important consequence. Just take a look at Conway which passed impact fees in the fall of 2003. Building permits declined sharply in 2004 and continued falling over the next three years. At the same time, Conway's neighbors, Vilonia and Greenbrier, boomed.
I think it's fair to say that we're all frustrated these days. Gas is over $4 a gallon and food prices are skyrocketing. We demand more services with less money, thereby creating an unprecedented strain on our cities. And the dysfunction resulting from this stress leads those who are otherwise rational to disregard facts to the contrary and promote these fees as smart and innovative. Sadly, had our leaders kept sewer rates in line with need through the years, this conversation would be moot.
Let's encourage today's leaders to choose a pragmatic approach over a regressive one dressed up to look progressive. But if these taxes do come to pass, let's hope enough of our neighbors build new homes in Little Rock to pay for the treatment plant we'll all be using.
Bad rap for lenders
Payday lenders have gotten a bad rap, but I think they provide a needed service. A $50 fee for a short term loan of around $350 translates to a high rate of interest, which the attorney general and Max Brantley are comparing to other forms of traditional loans. This is not the right comparison. What bank will provide a short term loan of $350 (at any interest rate) to someone perhaps with bad credit with no collateral? Other forms of traditional loans are simply not an option. When is the last time the attorney general or Max Brantley was facing an impending shut off of utilities (requiring a $75 fee to turn it back on)? Or facing a possibility of bouncing a check with a $25 merchant fee and a $35 bank fee — plus $15 court costs if it gets to the prosecuting attorney's office? I would certainly be willing to pay a $50 fee to a payday lender if those were my other options.
How come pawn shops are not “bloodsucking scofflaws,” Mr. Brantley? Aren't they essentially loaning money for a piece of collateral? You have 30 days to return and either pay or renew the loan or they keep the collateral. You bring in a $400 TV set and maybe you'll get $50 for it and have to pay back $60 in 30 days to get it back. Isn't this a 243 percent APR loan? So that's not illegal? Why not?
Mr. Brantley should use his investigative skills and accompany a typical payday lender customer around to banks or credit unions and see if they can get a $350 loan for 14 days. Take them anywhere he thinks they can go and not get ripped off by “bloodsucking scofflaws,” but the point is they HAVE to be able to get the money. Where does he suggest they go? I'd be anxious to know because all I hear is how bad the payday lenders are, but NO one including Mr. Brantley has EVER to my knowledge suggested a realistic cheaper alternative. If my son was sick and needed some medicine TODAY and I didn't get paid until next Friday, I would GLADLY pay $50 to get the money for that medicine!
Beware the food blogger
I am a huge advocate of good, honest, informed feedback. But young aspiring writers, eager to display their newfound skill, are far too often given the charge of reviewing or blogging about local eateries.
Hard-working local restaurant owners and their families can be put out of business with a bad review; why, then, should that review be assigned to a writer or blogger who simply is not qualified to handle this important responsibility?
I am quick to point out that there are many experienced and qualified food writers in Little Rock — Kelly Bass, Kane Webb, Lori Hambuchen, and Max Brantley, to name a few.
Food writing and blogging seems too often to be a perk handed out to writers who are inexperienced, who aren't well traveled or even all that familiar with the local restaurant scene. Considering the profound impact that they have on our livelihoods, they should be much better qualified.
Food writing is a serious responsibility with serious consequences.
Answer and irony
Daniel Coston of Fayetteville, in a letter to the editor last week, joined the many transfigured back in space and time by Bob Lancaster writing about John Noah's Restaurant in Pine Bluff. Coston went on, “My own memory of the place involves that massive lumber mill, just to the west, as mysterious as a spaceport in my Andre Norton sci-fi novels. It was the biggest whatever-it-was I'd ever seen.'
It was a lumber mill — NORTON Lumber Mill. The grandson of Mr. Norton, Ted Norton Drake, is a grandee lawyer in Pine Bluff, about 67 years old. Mr. Norton had one of the first televisions in Pine Bluff — at the mill — about 1948 or 1950.