Columns » Max Brantley

Little Rock's sad state

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Mayor Mark Stodola delivered his state of the city address last week and the message wasn't uplifting.

We haven't had a street surfacing program for four years. The police headquarters is a health hazard. A new west Little Rock fire station can't be staffed. No cop cars have been replaced in three years. Prisons and jails can't take all our criminals. The parks are blighted by lack of maintenance. Dozens of city service jobs stand empty.

So, the city will be pushing for an increase in the sales tax, at a half-cent since adoption in 1994. Most Arkansas cities charge more. But most Arkansas cities don't disappoint their citizens so often.

It was more than a little ironic to hear the mayor talk of deteriorating inner city neighborhoods and the struggling public schools. City leaders have, for decades, encouraged policies that encouraged inner city blight and abandonment of public schools. The city allowed Chenal Valley to develop outside the Little Rock School District, turbocharging white flight. The city has encouraged interstate highway corridors that divide rich and poor neighborhoods and send city workers speeding home to distant suburbs.

Even in the cratered downtown, the city has harmed itself. We let the state build office buildings with parking decks and unfriendly street level frontage. Suburban commuters need not set foot on Little Rock soil while working here.

Stodola is late to the vision thing, too. Just this week, I learned of another cultural institution lured to North Little Rock's Argenta neighborhood by big-hearted philanthropists and a can-do city government. In Little Rock, we create task forces; we draw up initiatives. We just don't do much. The downtown, a significant chunk controlled by one of the state's wealthiest citizens, withers. The River Market neighborhood is an exception thanks to brave private developers, a former president and a dynamic library chief.

I had to laugh at the mayor's call for "walkable" neighborhoods. The city has forever not required developers to build sidewalks. I could only shake my head at the litany of beggared city services, particularly the lack of sufficient parks and fire services in western Little Rock. How many times have city officials — staff and elected — told us that westward annexations pay for themselves? That impact fees would only torpedo prosperity?

Stodola's right to tie city development and healthier people. Europeans live longer, in part thanks to socialized medicine. But compact, concentrated cities help, too. People walk more, even to reach the better mass transit. They shop in small amounts more often and there are more neighborhood markets with fresh vegetables to serve them. They aren't spending hours carbound driving to and from Cabot.

City planning that encouraged suburban development has now borne bitter fruit. The suburbs have their own shopping centers. Between them and the Internet, the Little Rock sales tax base has been shot to hell.

Amid all this, the city wastes money. There's the $200,000 taxpayer dole to a Chamber of Commerce that works against the interest of workers and the public schools. Then there's the recent misspending and extravagant ways, with no consequences, the Times uncovered at Little Rock National Airport. These things happen because our government is unrepresentative. At-large board seats — and thus the moneyed interests — control government. The same special interests dominate appointments to the most important commissions.

A poor economy is the least of the mayor's worries in winning voter support for a tax increase. The biggest is city government itself.

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