Little Rock mayor Mark Stodola's only opponent this election season is a last-minute filer who is head of the local effort to legalize marijuana and who has made several unsuccessful runs for office. But Stodola is in an unenviable position nevertheless.
Stodola, as the city's official cheerleader, must put forth a positive message about the state of things, one that stresses the advances the city has made during his first term as the city's first "strong mayor."
But he's been mayor during a time of repeated cuts in the city budget, thanks to the growing cost of services and the worst economy the country has experienced in decades. Little Rock is a city that a former mayor describes as "losing ground" and "running out of fuel." Stodola knows, as surely the city board of directors does, that he's got a city sales tax increase campaign ahead of him. He will have to make the argument that unless Little Rock can come up with new revenues, it's got nowhere to go but down.
And while he doesn't say so, he surely wants to clarify that other ambiguity that marks his first four-year term in office, the hybrid mayor-city manager form of government that puts him a step removed from directly implementing change.
In 2007, voters said yes to giving the mayor new powers: He has veto power over city board actions, he has the ability to appoint boards and commissions, and the city manager and city attorney serve at his pleasure, sort of — he can't fire them without the approval of the board of directors.
The vote also provided for a salary in the six figures for a newly full-time mayor. Stodola makes $160,000.
The city's other top administrator, City Manager Bruce Moore, makes $168,920.
Some see that as an administration that is top-heavy, though the mayor and city manager like to compare their situation to that of a company with a CEO (the mayor) and the COO (city manager).
If you ask Stodola what we have to show for the new government plan, he'll give you lots of answers. He points to the fact that crime is down — 54 percent in the case of homicides — since he took office, and says it's partly thanks to his support of PIT (Prevention, Intervention and Treatment) programs and Quiet Nights special policing units, paid for with federal dollars.
He says he "engineered" the compromise with the Little Rock Zoo, War Memorial Stadium and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences that sold park property to UAMS (for an amount still under negotiation). Indeed, the former minor league baseball park at the heart of this swap still silently rots, a growing eyesore.
He notes the location of the $150 million Welspun pipe plant here (after getting a $2 million incentive from the state), Windstream's decision to stay (after a $5.5 million incentive from the state and in no small measure due to its pre-existing footprint here). Millions of dollars in federal stimulus grants to revitalize neighborhoods south of Interstate 630. A new soccer field out west, on land previously owned by Central Arkansas Water.
He's worked with the new Land Bank Commission, whose members he and city directors appointed, to obtain and resell abandoned properties around Central High School and other areas.
Less intriguing is his boast that he triggered a study of downtown redevelopment — one that joined other studies on a shelf somewhere. He also said he is enlisting the Department of Correction to help get public areas cleaned up. He put cigarette butt containers in the River Market district along Clinton Avenue.
Sometimes, his influence is limited. He was not able to persuade the Little Rock Zoo's board to make smoking at the zoo illegal. He did not get a no-knock ordinance passed that would have kept door-to-door solicitors away.
And though Stodola could fire the city manager if he decided he wanted to work with someone of his choosing, someone with no history with the city board, politically it would be a bad move. City Manager Moore, who has been on the job for eight years, is more than competent, has lots of support on the board and is African-American in a city with a black population somewhere near 40 percent of the total. To get rid of the city's most high profile black leader since Mahlon Martin would be impossible.
That's something that Stodola raised in a recent interview. "He represents a significant part of the community," the mayor said, and his position helps combat the perception that only wealthier parts of Little Rock benefit from action by the city board.
Moore said the mayor-manager dynamic hasn't changed as much as people might think. He noted that he worked for Mayor Jim Dailey, who while not a full-time mayor worked full time.
As city manager, Moore said he's brought in talent from across the country to head up city departments — Fire Chief Rhoda Kerr, for example, who after five years here now heads up the Austin, Texas, department.
Moore acknowledged there was some getting used to. Early on, however, Moore said the mayor told him if he was getting "too involved" in the manager's job to let him know. According to some people who know, that's happened a time or two.
The greatest challenge Stodola, Moore and the city directors face right now is finding a way to pay 4 percent raises agreed to in contracts with police and firefighters — raises the public safety employees have deferred for a year already. The city needs $1.4 million for police, $900,000 for firefighters and about $600,000 for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees members (sanitation, street, fleet mechanics). That's close to $3 million.
This bill is coming due at a time the city is scraping by. The budget for 2010 had $6 million less in its general fund than it did in 2009, and the city had to cut $2.7 million more mid-year, thanks to a substantial change in utility rates that produced a 16 percent decline in franchise fees to the city. When Moore and the board suggested the gap could be partly made up by using insurance money that would have rebuilt the burned Adult Leisure Center on Twelfth Street, supporters of the center rose up. The board backed off, leaving Moore to suggest that employee layoffs might be required, which in turn put pressure on the police, fire and AFSCME members to agree, for a second time, to forgo raises that had been due at the first of the year.
The city was able to make up its (now much reduced) shortfall with money in the street fund reserves and cuts in special project expenditures.
Here are some examples of how the city is dealing with its leaner budget:
Going after more federal dollars to handle city responsibilities: The city won a $4 million COPPS (Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving) grant to fill 20 vacancies at the Little Rock Police Department, and a $2 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to upgrade 20-year-old police software. A federal SAFER grant is paying for 18 firefighters, and city buildings are getting new HVAC systems. Thanks to the feds, sidewalks, 2.7 miles of them, are being built in the First Ward, which includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in town.
Since the start of 2009, the city has eliminated 44 and a half jobs to save money, 20 of them at the end of last year. There are now 171 vacancies — 111 of them funded from the general fund — saving the city around $5 million. Like the uniformed employees, non-uniformed employees have gone without a raise since 2009, when they got 3 percent.
The last time city code enforcement — the folks whose job it is to resolve problems with high grass, trash dumping, property neglect and so forth — was fully staffed was in 2007. Then, there were 32 code enforcement officers covering 122 square miles. Until the city manager authorized Housing and Neighborhood programs to hire two people last week, the department was 11 employees short.
The Parks and Recreation Department — usually the first to take a hit when budget overruns threaten — is down 14 employees. Our city parks are categorized as Class C parks because we don't have the manpower to mow and maintain them. A $7 million bond re-issue is allowing the department to remake War Memorial Park, fix up neighborhood parks and buy land -- but there's no maintenance budget to keep the new landscaping alive, the weeds from taking over, the trash cleaned up. The only reason the city's two public pools stayed open this summer is that private companies kicked in $20,000.
At the Planning and Development Department, the permit desk is closed during the lunch hour because there aren't enough employees to man it. City planners who used to work with neighborhoods on action plans are making maps because the employees who used to do the graphics are gone. The department has gone without a building inspector for five years (he was promoted to commercial inspector) and the building codes manager, Chuck Givens, is out doing electrical inspections. "We're down to the bare minimum," Givens said.
Three alert centers were shut down. There are potholes. One resident complained to Stodola his street here was worse than those he'd seen in Afghanistan.
There are 48 vacancies in the Little Rock Police Department (by Moore's count, 60 by Chief Stuart Thomas'), including a captain, lieutenant, sergeant and 12 police officers. The rest are crime scene specialists, tech personnel, dispatchers, clerical workers, investigators. When this reporter was at headquarters a couple of weeks ago, it was raining in the lobby. The city is going to have to come up with $400,000 for a new roof, money that will come at the expense of city services. "Our radio system is still analog," Thomas noted in an interview, and it's becoming difficult to find parts for repair. The city was able to hire 20 new officers with its COPPs grant, but 17 of them are still in training.
Thomas said a police car involved in an accident a couple of weeks ago was totaled because its value was only about $900. Information technologists at the department had to strip new software out of new computers so they'd be compatible with the records system's 1989 software.
Stodola has said he wants Little Rock to be "the next great Southern city." It's looking like that's a way off -- unless the city can generate new money. That's where the sales tax increase comes in.
On nearly every managerial desk in City Hall, handy to reporters, is a chart of sales tax collected in Arkansas's 50 largest cities. Little Rock's is the lowest, at a half cent. Bentonville, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Rogers and Springdale collect two cents. Bryant collects three cents. Fort Smith pulled in $3 million in sales tax collections in June this year; Little Rock, more than twice as large, received $1.9 million.
Little Rock's total tax revenues top all other cities' because of Pulaski County turnback.
But the city could use the $22 million another half-cent could generate — depending, the mayor and manager and city directors all emphasize, on what kind of city the residents want. Should we have more police officers? More parks, mown and tended? Speedier code enforcement? Better planning?
Or is the status quo fine for now, in an economy that threatens to take a second dip?
North Little Rock has a strong mayor, that's for sure. Muscular Mayor Pat Hays is unchecked — witness his latest deal with a developer that would swap city land for a block downtown on which the developer would build a hotel — and though his efforts include the head-scratching (the Razorback submarine) and the conniving (a gerrymandered TIF district to divert school millage to the new hotel and parking lot), he's made a lot of people happy, and has held the mayor's job longer than any other.
Little Rock, like many other larger municipalities, moved to the city manager form of government because it was seen as more professional and less political. Motivating the swing back is the idea that an elected mayor would be more responsive to the public.
Little Rock's hybrid system still has some folks wondering who really is in charge. Tom Dalton, who was city manager in the 1970s, called Little Rock's government a "hybrid of a hybrid," its structure "floating between various forms" of council-mayor and council-manager systems.
When Stodola was elected in 2007, he was a new animal, exerting himself in a way the board and manager were unused to. Jim Dailey says Stodola's tenure so far has been one of "transition," where beneath the surface there has been a "discounting of the validity of what has happened," a resistance to change.
Dailey -- long an advocate for the strong mayor system -- said he believes that things have "worked fairly well with Bruce and Mark" and they are making a "territorial adjustment" but he believes the city needs to move toward a stronger mayor. Which is not to say he thinks Moore is doing a bad job. "Bruce Moore is one of my best friends," Dailey said. "I would hire Bruce to be my chief of staff." And that's something the mayor ought to be able to do, he said: Hire his chief of staff — without the say-so of the city board. Little Rock's government "needs to be a pure strong mayor system. ... We need to finish the job" that the 2007 election started, the former mayor said.
Neighborhood activists like saddle-burr Jim Lynch and Fair Park Residents Association head Joe Busby give Stodola good marks because of the mayor's interest in neighborhood issues, and, Lynch said, "he's a maniac on law enforcement." Both — especially Busby, who made a statement of support for Stodola the day Stodola filed for re-election — want to give the mayor more power.
When Stodola, a former prosecuting attorney, decided to run, "I called him up and asked, 'Why do you want to be mayor?' " Lynch said. "He said, 'I enjoy solving problems.' "
"He didn't run to be a potted plant," Lynch added.
Busby called Moore "a brilliant man," but added, "I think we have a voter-initiated system where we have a strong mayor but didn't have the strength of will" to do away with the power of the city manager. Some of that has to do, Lynch and Busby say, with the fact that Moore is black.
Stodola's most obvious frustration — though not that obvious — has been in how long it's taken to get his idea to privatize the landfill off the ground. He has been talking about privatization, which he initially thought would not just increase city revenues but would get the despised BFI landfill in Southwest Little Rock closed sooner, for three years. The city manager said a study was needed before a request for proposals should go out; the city attorney looked into whether privatization would be allowed under bond criteria and eventually private legal counsel was required. The request for proposals was still being completed while this story was being written; it's due soon, Moore said. "I know the mayor's not pleased with the time it's taken," Moore said. But, he said, the issue is a complex one.
If the landfill is privatized, 16 city employees could be out of work. But Moore said the RFP addresses that, asking for a plan on how city employees could be taken on. Or, because of the vacancies in public works, maybe those employees could move there.
City Director Michael Keck was seen as a likely opponent for Stodola earlier this year, but last month he announced he'd decided not to seek re-election, much less run for mayor.
At a City Board meeting two weeks ago, Keck, who represents the Fifth Ward (West Little Rock), called for a reality check on the city's budget situation, seeking quick decision-making on how the 2011 budget can include $3 million in raises for police and fire without additional revenues. If their future is uncertain, Little Rock employees need time to prepare, he said.
One by one, board members weighed in, with Ken Richardson (Second Ward, East Little Rock) saying there was a "sense of urgency" that meant the board needed to "roll up its sleeves and get down to work." Brad Cazort (Fourth Ward, Northwest Little Rock) added, "If we're not going to talk about new revenue sources, we need to talk about cuts."
Joan Adcock (at-large), noting that she was normally optimistic, said she feared layoffs were imminent.
But Stodola came out of the meeting upbeat, saying things were going to work out. "We're finally going to get the RFP for the landfill out," he added.
After the election, however, look for a call for a public discussion on "what we can be as a city," as Stodola puts it, and the need for new tax revenues to get there. It's likely the discussion will include the issue of whether the mayor-manager double team is the way to move forward.