On March 10, the push to sell a permanent 1-cent sales tax increase for the city of Little Rock will begin in earnest with Mayor Frank Scott offering a detailed pitch to the Board of Directors on how he envisions spending the $50 million per year the new tax is expected to generate.
I got a preview of the plan in a long off-the-record meeting with several city insiders this week.
Big picture, expect the mayor to frame the Lift Little Rock campaign as a holistic approach to improving quality of life in the city. He’s likely to acknowledge the regressive nature of a sales tax, but frame this initiative as a vehicle for progressive policies that’ll equitably benefit Little Rock residents and make it more attractive for millennials and retirees looking for a place to settle down.
The city board is likely to vote on the plan in April with an election to follow, probably in July or August. Whether the city would begin collecting the tax late in the year or Jan. 1, 2021, is still be debating internally.
Here’s the expected breakdown (if you take the upper end of each estimate, the total equals 100):
25-35 percent for parks and park infrastructure projects
15-20 percent for public safety
10-15 percent for the zoo
10-15 percent on pre-K and early childhood
10 percent on street and infrastructure projects**
2-5 percent for economic development
*Parks: The plans for improving the city’s parks come from recommendations made by a parks task force established by the mayor. Among the big ideas: establishing War Memorial as a regional amateur sports destination with a multi-sports complex; building an Olympic-style swimming pool at the Jim Dailey Fitness and Aquatic Center; developing multi-use trails, a next-level playground and a world-class frisbee golf course at Hindman Park; improving the city’s remaining golf courses, First Tee and Rebsamen; expanding the Rebsamen Tennis Center, perhaps with indoor courts; adding a pool at the West Central Community Center; and building a senior center to rival North Little Rock’s Patrick Henry Hays Senior Center.
*Public safety: This would go toward equipment and other infrastructure for the police and fire departments. That includes renovation of the courts portion of the LRPD headquarters was initially slated to be completed with the 3/8 cent sales tax that went into effect in 2012 and will sunset at the end of 2021. Also money would go toward expanding the ShotSpotter gunshot detection system that city officials say has been an effective tool at helping to curb gun violence.
*Zoo: These plans largely come from another task force created by the mayor, and he talked about them at his state of the city address. They include new exhibits for giraffes, bears, red wolves and razorbacks.
*Early childhood: Look for Scott to frame this initiative as economic development, a pitch city officials say some members of the business community have already embraced. The city and newly hired Chief Education Officer Jay Barth have wide ranging, potentially transformative goals for education, including working with the LRSD on a community schools model and expanding after-school and summer programs. But this plan is all about improving and expanding the number of affordable or free, high-quality pre-K seats in the Little Rock School District and among private providers. The details on how the city will work with the district to expand pre-K slots are still being hashed out. With private providers, the city will provide technical assistance and training in the hope of stabilizing and improving the quality of the providers. If city assistance can help expand the number of high-quality seats, there’s a lot of state and federal assistance available for families (aid varies depending on the age of the child and the family’s poverty level). The goal here is to help the working poor avoid being saddled with the massive expense daycare can be.
*Street and infrastructure projects: I don’t have an idea of specific projects, though city officials said the determinations would be “equity-based” and would include areas south of I-630 and east of I-30, both of which have historically been relatively ignored by the city.
*Economic development: Look for Scott to frame this also as “equitable economic development.” The mayor wants to build up minority-owned businesses in partnership with a local foundation by setting up a Small Business Association-type loan program. Economic development is also about supporting the people and businesses that are already here, he’ll say. The city would also like to buy more land for the Little Rock Port and move a VHF Omni-Directional Range (VOR) cone at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, which would give the port nearly 1,000 acres to establish a super site for heavy manufacturing.
**I previously incorrectly reported that 10 percent of the tax would go toward unfinished programs from the 3/8ths tax that will expire in 2021. The only incomplete project that will be finished with the 1-cent tax is the courts portion of police headquarters.