The Little Rock City Board last week approved a tax increment finance district bond issue supported by property tax dollars from schools and local government to help developer Tommy Hodges build roads and other infrastructure for the already-built Bass Pro Shop and the coming Gateway Town Center.
Though City Manager Bruce Moore once vowed this project would get no tax subsidies, it now will get $3.6 million, about $1.5 million from Little Rock school taxes.
Developers normally are expected to pay for their own infrastructure work. The Board offered not a single word of explanation for departure from custom,, though Arkansas Community Organizations, a grassroots group that works in inner city neighborhoods, had objected.
Is this a precedent? Will future private developments come seeking tax increment finance districts to use school tax dollars? The city and county are contributing property tax millages to the Bass Pro development, too. But they reap the benefit of new sales taxes. The School District gets nothing.
The City Board has always held the interests of merchants, developers and other businesses above school children. It gives hundreds of thousands of dollars each year — unconstitutionally we believe — to support the pro-business Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, too, is unaccustomed to taking questions about its actions against the broader public interest.
The Little Rock School Board, looking ahead to a millage election to build new schools, went along with this. Thanks to an earlier court ruling, some of its tax millage is protected. So it will get some, if not all, of the money it should be due from new construction.
But the decision coincides with the end of the Little Rock desegregation case, a long battle short on clear winners. The Little Rock City Board played a pivotal historic role. It acceded to business interests and segregated the schools through zoning and urban renewal and by ceding city territory to a white flight suburban school district. Its reward is a deteriorating core city, ignored again last week when its residents objected.
In time — whether by court action or the inexorable march of demographics — the City Board will become democratic with ward representation. Then, maybe, it might at least feel obligated to explain its votes. Someone then might note that coddling private business hasn't rained prosperity on the city, if a stagnant population and revenue base are any measure.