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Surprise: new tax talk

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In the face of grumbling about a recent state sales tax increase for education, it might not seem the perfect time to talk about another tax increase. But Ken Griffey, chairman of the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, thinks otherwise. He surprised other commissioners last week by suggesting that the group consider advocating an advertising and promotion sales tax increase to invest in city parks. "Part of Vision Little Rock's mandate for the Parks Department is finding partnerships and alternate funding sources," said Griffey, an advertising executive who's been on the commission since its inception in January 2003. "Shame on us if we didn't pursue every option." State law allows cities to levy up to three cents on the dollar on all restaurant food sales and hotel rooms to pay for convention centers, theme parks, and city parks. An advertising and promotion commission appointed by the city administers the money from this so-called hamburger tax. In Little Rock, two cents is currently levied, part of a cumulative 9.5-cent bite from state, county and city on restaurant and hotel bills. The burger tax produces $7.3 million a year in Little Rock, dedicated to bonds on the Statehouse Convention Center and operating costs of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. Other cities already use the tax to fund city parks. North Little Rock, which levies the full three cents, sends $3.9 million a year to its parks. So far, the idea of a tax increase in Little Rock seems mostly to be Griffey's. Barry Travis, executive director of the Convention Bureau, said there had been no recent discussions at the Advertising and Promotion Commission on an increase. To be imposed, both the Advertising and Promotion Commission and the City Board would have to approve it, though, by law, a public vote wouldn't be required. Some city directors are mindful of voter defeats of three sales tax proposals in Pulaski County within the last two years, however. "We need to perform well on the bond issue. Then we'll be in a better position to go for a tax increase, if warranted, of any kind," City Director Stacy Hurst, a parks supporter, wrote in a recent e-mail. The Parks Department received $15 million for capital improvements in a recent bond issue vote. But she's glad Griffey put the idea about the third cent on the table. "I feel like if we ever decide to use it, we should use it for parks," she wrote. City Director Michael Keck said he's predisposed to take any sales tax increase to voters, required or not. They aren't likely to be receptive soon, he said, since the legislature just raised the state tax rate from 5.125 percent to 6 percent. With the new tax rate, the state Department of Finance and Administration estimates that Arkansas is fourth in the nation for the percentage of personal income spent on state and local sales taxes. Griffey said he's aware of these obstacles, but he thinks people are concerned about quality of life. "It comes down to what the citizens perceive as important," he said. "We'll never find out if we don't ask."

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