The Little Rock City Board was scheduled to consider a resolution Tuesday night approving a tax increase for property owners in the Metrocentre Improvement District, but the proposal has been withdrawn because of late-emerging opposition.
The district, which covers 229 parcels on 45 downtown blocks was established originally to build the long-gone Metrocentre Mall, as well as parking decks, currently assesses a 3.05 percent levy (based on a combination of property value and proximity to Capitol Avenue and Main Street). The board of the district — Robert Shoptaw, Jimmy Moses, Odies Wilson, Doug Meyer and Millie Ward — had recommended increasing the total rate to 3.8 percent. The rate was 3.85 percent until 2012, when bond refinancing allowed a reduction in the base charge and the cumulative rate was lowered to 3.05 percent.
The overall rate includes .5 percent special levy for operating expenses, primarily street cleaning crews. The resolution the board was to approve would have increased the operating levy to 1.25 percent, a 150 percent increase.
Sharon Priest, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, which has a contract to manage the district, explained that the increase was needed in part to cover a drop in payments from the portion of the base district assessment allowed to go to operations. The refinancing cut support to the Downtown Partnership from $190,000 to $119,000. Had the increase been approved, it would have increased the separate operating levy from $83,000 to $220,000, recouping the $71,000 and providing an addition $66,000. That would have made the Partnership whole and allowed a small increase in operational expenses. In addition to operating the parking deck at Sixth and Scott and cleaning the area, the Downtown Partnership promotes economic development and works on Main Street revitalization efforts, such as the food truck events.
Priest said the Downtown Partnership laid off one person and one cleanup crew worker was laid off after the $71,000 budget cut last year.
She said expenses are barely being covered. The commissioners met with major property owners in April about an increase. A letter on the proposal was sent to all property owners. She said little opposition had been voiced until Friday, when a number of calls came in, enough that the measure was pulled.
The assessor’s office had to be notified by the end of this month for the change to take effect, so the withdrawal kills the increase for a year. “We decided it would be more prudent to work further with property owners on it,” Priest said.
UPDATE: Some further chatting underscores that some old downtown divisions are part of the unhappiness here. The Metrocentre district was started before anybody even dreamed of a River Market district, now the center of recent development activity. People paying the Metrocentre levy feel “double-taxed,” by the city and the district, while River Market property owners get city-paid cleaning services. As one opponent put it: If you’re west of Cumberland you pay; if you’re east of Cumberland, you don’t. That Jimmy Moses is a Metrocentre district commissioner while doing major development outside the district rankles some. His firm also has developed property along Main Street, too, however. At least two other commissioners, Ward and Meyer, own property in the district. Finally, the opposition isn’t happy that tax money pays for Sharon Priest’s $120,000 job at the Downtown Partnership (about 80 percent of the Partnership’s annual revenue comes from the improvement district assessment.) Her job is broader than administering the district, as the group’s most recent tax form illustrates