Columns » Max Brantley

The city’s shame



City Manager Bruce Moore should have been ashamed to join the Christmas party last week at the city landfill.

It was a heart-warming story. Little Rock garbage truck crews had pooled $1,000 to buy Christmas presents and deliver meals to nine poor children.

Why should Moore have been ashamed? Because he leads a city that is bleeding garbage men to comfort the well-to-do.

The crew members earn $7 to $9 an hour. The city wants to freeze their pay — and 17 city workers will be fired next year — to balance the city budget. But, in the budget process, the city Board of Directors and Mayor Mark Stodola refused to trim a single penny from its $200,000 subsidy to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Taxpayers get no full accounting of how the chamber spends this money. They get no detailed report of services delivered beyond generalized cheerleading reports on new business possibilities. A precise report on benefits from the contract would be all but impossible, or at least implausible. It's a rare business that chooses a city for the quality of chamber of commerce salesmanship over labor costs and education, transportation resources, raw materials, utility costs, access to markets, taxes, taxpayer-provided welfare payments, etc. It's a rare big business that isn't able to figure out the bottom line information on its own.

We do know taxpayers' money helps pay the salary of five Chamber employees earning an average $75,000 a year, with good health benefits. We also know these employees are part of the Chamber's larger political effort. This includes opposition to organized labor, particularly public employees' unions. The garbage truck crews are members of AFSCME, the public employees' union.

It's a story worthy of O. Henry. The city freezes the pay of $7-an-hour garbage men to preserve unaccountable $75,000 jobs at a private organization working to further erode the bargaining power of garbage men and, among other political aims, limit access to health care. The garbage men give to the poor.

One critic of my earlier columns on this topic objected that I had not mentioned the many other public agencies that effectively signal endorsement of the city subsidy by their own payment of membership dues to the Chamber.

Thank you for reminding me. They shouldn't.

The Arkansas Constitution says that no local government shall “obtain or appropriate money for, or loan its credit to, any corporation, association, institution or individual.”

A literal reading would seem to prohibit payment of dues to a private organization like the Chamber (and the various private economic development corporations that local governments subsidize statewide). The dues are relatively small and the practice so widespread that they might withstand a court test. But lawyers are well aware that unhappy taxpayers might not be so complacent about larger subsidies. Thus we have the fiction of the city's “contract for services” with the Chamber of Commerce on economic development. It is an operating subsidy to a private organization, no matter what you call it.

At least when you pay the garbage man $7 an hour, you know precisely what you get in return.


PS — I owe an apology to Little Rock garbage crews for a recent blog complaint about the vagaries of once-weekly garbage service. It's not their fault that workforce reductions dictate only mechanical pickups of rolling trash bins and no pickup of the occasional overflow. A worker frozen at $7 an hour to subsidize good suits downtown deserves some slack, even if he wasn't also digging into his own pocket to help give poor kids a Christmas. How nice it would be to see the Chamber dig into its taxpayer-lined pocket.


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