Forty-six days is barely enough time to plan a fair-to-middling Halloween party, much less educate an entire city on the pros and cons of two new sales tax proposals, but that's the time North Little Rock voters have to work with in considering a new one-penny sales tax — the window between an emergency meeting called Sept. 23 to approve sending the proposal to the polls and the day voters will actually enter the voting booth on Nov. 8. City administrators, including Mayor Pat Hays, said that though scheduling the election so quickly might look like a rush, the proposed tax is meant to cover concerns the city has had for years.
The proposals were approved at a 10 a.m. Sept. 23 emergency meeting of the North Little Rock City Council. The city is asking voters to approve a two-part tax. Half a cent would be permanent, and would go toward hiring more firefighters and police, building and staffing a new fire station in the east end of the city, and upgrading North Little Rock's emergency communications system, among other projects. The other half-cent would sunset in 2017, and Mayor Pat Hays has said it would be set aside for roads, bridges and job creation projects. One of the planned projects if the taxes pass is the purchase of 2,000 acres in the eastern part of the city, which will be developed into a "business park" — possibly including a new home for the Arkansas State Fair. At their most recent meeting on Oct. 20, the Arkansas Livestock Show Association Board said that they are holding fire on the continuing search for a new location for the State Fair until they see whether the North Little Rock taxes pass or not.
If both proposals are approved by voters, the additional one cent would raise the total sales tax in North Little Rock to nine percent. The emergency meeting came less than two weeks after Little Rock approved its own two-part penny sales tax. The North Little Rock tax vote will be piggy-backed onto a statewide Nov. 8 bond election that benefits road construction.
Ward 2 Alderman Maurice Taylor said that the tax will help with infrastructure projects that have been on the drawing board for years.
If someone spends $10,000 a year in North Little Rock, Taylor noted, the additional tax would only amount to $100 (though, of course, the total tax amount would be $900). "The beauty of a sales tax is, everybody pays," he said. "If a kid goes and buys a stick of gum, he pays taxes on it. If you go and buy a car, you pay taxes. If you spend a lot of money, you pay more taxes. If you don't spend a lot, you don't pay much."
Not everyone is a fan. Joanne Filiatreau, who lives in Sherwood and is one of the founding members of the Arkansas Tea Party, said the group plans to go door-to-door and hand out 5,000 flyers in opposition to the tax. "It doesn't matter if they rammed it through in an hour or a month," she said. "In this economic climate today that each and every family is living in, it is just the wrong time to increase the tax."
Murry Witcher, who represents North Little Rock's Ward 4, which includes Lakewood, Indian Hills and Overbrook, was on vacation at the time of the Sept. 23 vote, but said he personally supports the tax. Witcher said the city is in its budget cycle for 2012 and needs to know the funds they have to work with.
"We need an idea of what funds we're going to [have on hand] to provide increases in cost-of-living for our employees, and salary increases," he said. "There's a whole lot that's predicated on whether this passes or not, from a budget standpoint." While Witcher acknowledged two weeks prior to the election that he doesn't believe the majority of North Little Rock voters know there's a vote on Nov. 8, he said Hays and several aldermen have been working to get the word out, and newspaper stories will help as well.
Mayor Pat Hays said the "meat and potatoes concerns" behind the tax proposal are long-term issues that have been waiting for funds for years.
Hays said that the success of the one-cent sale tax proposal in Little Rock had a part to play with proposing the election in North Little Rock. With the new funds, Little Rock plans to go to an all-digital emergency communications system. Because North Little Rock "backbones" onto the Little Rock system, Hays said North Little Rock will have to upgrade its system to be able to effectively communicate in the event of a bi-city emergency. "That's a non-issue as far as whether we're going to do it or not," he said. "That's going to be about a $5 million dollar cost, so whether we pass our sales tax or not, we're going to have to find a way to do that." In addition, Hays said that with funds from Little Rock's penny sales tax, "Little Rock is going to be going in the market for somewhere in excess of 60 new officers. We're behind them in salaries right now, and we're going to need to be competitive."
While Hays admits that he's never heard a member of the public say it's a good time to raise taxes, he said part of the half-cent tax that sunsets in five years will go toward job creation. As an example, he points to the North Little Rock Caterpillar plant, which opened in September 2010. "We wouldn't have Caterpillar out here if North Little Rock hadn't been able to step up with a good part of the incentive package that the state partnered on in order to get the company to locate here. That's upwards of 600 jobs."
Hays said that asking more of citizens in the way of taxation is just the way things are headed in many municipalities. "Those cities that are truly going to lay a pathway to the future are going to be those that recognize that they're going to need to look more at their own front doors and look at themselves to do the things that make their cities better, rather than to look to state or federal partnerships."