Columns » Max Brantley

Little Rock's golden rule

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In less than four weeks — in an election city officials hope is noticed only by those identified as reliable supporters of city government — Little Rock voters will be asked to vote for a 3-mill property tax to finance street and drainage work.

There's no better use of the property tax than support for infrastructure. Plus, if the city grows and property values grow, the tax grows. Well-managed, the revenue can avoid the need for catch-up tax increases.

So I start sympathetic. Though the tax goes away if not approved, in effect it is just continuation of an ongoing levy, actually a 9 percent reduction from the current 3.3-mill rate. That's enough to hold most homeowners harmless against shocking increases in property valuation in the recent countywide reappraisal, given the 5 percent cap on tax increases.

Criticism has arisen to the tax plan. Arkansas Community Organizations, the grassroots group, and the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods, along with some individuals and City Director Ken Richardson, have objected to the city's plan to spread the tax proceeds equally among the seven wards.

If the needs were equal, this would make sense. They are not. The older parts of town have much greater needs. The more prosperous neighborhoods will be favored by equal distribution.

According to city figures, street needs total $723 million. Ward 1, the eastern portion of the city, accounts for 21.2 percent of the work. Ward 7, far southwest Little Rock, needs 24.3 percent. Ward 4, which includes Chenal Valley, needs only about 4 percent, but would get $21 million from new sales tax and property tax money just like the crumbling East End.

The Coalition wants the City Board to alter the formula. Director Richardson said he liked an idea Director Dean Kumpuris once floated to give the poorest wards 10 percent of the money and then divide the rest equally.

It's not likely to happen. Gold rules in Little Rock, in everything from the at-large board seats that control the balance of power to the business-interest weighted regulatory boards to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce taxpayer subsidy and $21 million tech park handout.

The Little Rock Golden Rule worked against the city in the recent special sales tax election. Except for a handful of liberal and upper-class precincts, voters rejected the tax. But the margin was wide enough in the "good government" districts that the tax squeaked by. An unequal benefit for those same neighborhoods in the property tax election — along with their general propensity to support the infrastructure tax — might pass the property tax. If reappraisal sticker shock doesn't diminish that support.

It was disappointing last week to see a generally progressive City Hall adopt a Mitt Romney-style view of the tax election. City Manager Bruce Moore, a reasonable guy and able administrator, told the Democrat-Gazette that he couldn't understand opposition from poor neighborhoods.

According to the article, "Moore said because of the nature of the millage, which will be a larger burden on property owners with more valuable property, the opponents' argument seems flawed to him."

The property millage is a flat tax — the same rate on rich and poor alike. Yes, the mansions carry higher tax bills. But a flat tax hurts the working poor given how disproportionately it takes from their income. And it ignores the decades of unpaid stress the wealthy neighborhoods have placed on city infrastructure and services without impact fee or other tax revenue to offset it. An equal distribution of new tax revenue will widen the inequality gap and further erode neighborhoods from which people have already fled.

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