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Little Rock Mayor, Some City Directors, At Odds Over Sales Tax Proposal

Frank Scott Jr.
Michael Hibblen

Members of the Little Rock Board of Directors are divided about whether to put a permanent one cent sales tax increase up for a vote during a special election.

Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. is proposing the increase as one way of funding his vision for the city, branded as "Rebuild the Rock." During city board meetings over the past two weeks, Scott has asked directors to support an ordinance which would put the tax increase on the ballot during a special election on July 13.

Scott unveiled his proposal during a virtual State of the City address in March.

"Our Rebuild the Rock sales tax is [an] appropriate, transparent, and timely response to a pandemic that knocked us down, but did not knock us out," Scott said. "It will allow us to generate revenue, create new jobs, support small businesses, expand educational opportunities, redevelop and reimagine parks and [the] zoo, invest in underserved areas, and upgrade critical infrastructure in our city and improve public safety."

If approved by voters, the tax increase would begin next January when a temporary ?-cent sales tax, approved by voters in 2011, is set to expire. The ordinance to approve the special election was put before the city's directors last week. There was little debate among the directors during the public board meeting, but community members spoke for and against.

Greg Moore with Arkansas Community Organizations, a grassroots organization that works with the state’s low-income population, spoke against the tax.

"Many people in our community have lost jobs or have had their hours reduced. Many owe rent and other debts. Let us recover from this very trying year before holding an election to increase taxes on our groceries and other necessities," Moore said. "We are also troubled by the priorities of the tax proposal as reflected in the percentage of the general categories. Housing would receive only 4%. The zoo gets 9%."

Those speaking in favor of the tax and special election included representatives from the Museum of Discovery, the Port of Little Rock, the Little Rock Zoo, and Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. The LRCVB commissioned multiple feasibility studies on a variety of indoor and outdoor sports parks, funding for which is included in the mayor’s proposal.

"We feel like the development of sports facilities would certainly generate some additional economic impact as far as tourism goes, and then there are a lot of community aspects that are also beneficial," Hall said.

During the last two board meetings, city directors have delayed voting on the ordinance. On Tuesday night, Vice-Mayor Lance Hines said the lack of a vote shows a lack of support for the tax by directors. Funding for a program called the Community Oriented Police Patrol, or COPP, was one point of contention for several city directors.

"One of the components that everybody I hear when we talk about policing in 21st century policing is COPP. We have gutted at every turn our COPP program. If there's not dedicated funding that goes on top of our 574 staffing in this, I won't support it," Hines said.

A difference in belief about whether early childhood education programs or more policing will reduce crime in the city was alluded to. The mayor's proposal included funding for pre-K programs. Hines' counterproposal, which was shared with the mayor and some directors for the first time during the meeting, cut that funding.

"I don't think that's something the City of Little Rock should be doing with the sales tax," Hines said.

Other directors expressed concern over the timing of the special election, saying the matter could wait until the next general election. How the tax, estimated to generate $53 million annually, will be allotted is expected to be debated by the directors in the coming week. Parliamentary procedure requires the board to vote during the next meeting on May 4 on whether to put the tax proposal before voters.