Lawyer, Farmer, Former Executive Vice President and General Counsel for the Winrock Group, Inc., Former School Superintendent
How do you view the role of mayor in a city like Little Rock, which also has a city manager?
The city ordinance, which establishes Little Rock’s current form of government, states the mayor is the chief executive officer of the city. This ordinance says the mayor and city manager jointly prepare the city budget, and the city manager administers it. All other duties of the city manager are performed at the direction of the mayor. I have been a chief executive officer of several large organizations, including the Little Rock School District. A prudent CEO in a large organization like the city, with a $265 million budget, must delegate some responsibilities. I will, however, embrace the full authority, responsibility and accountability the ordinance confers on the mayor.
What do you consider to be the biggest issue facingLittle Rock today? What about five years from now?
The biggest issues facing Little Rock are public safety, economic development and education. These matters are intertwined making them inseparable. In different forms, these challenges have been the issues in Little Rock, and other cities, for generations.
In five years we will be dealing with these topics, but I hope we will be working in a more positive way. I hope we are directing more of our resources toward early childhood education, community support and enrichment, and quality of life. We are now spending our resources on incarceration, educational remediation and economic development incentives. These problems are largely rooted in denial and neglect. Our current expenditures are failure-based costs which are expended after problems have arisen, worsened and become very severe. We must move away from dealing with community issues at the end of the failure cycle and start spending our time and money reducing the causes of the problems.
How will you meet those challenges?
In the past, we have not attempted to solve these multifaceted problems in a comprehensive way. When neighborhoods decline, housing deteriorates, crime increases, while population and tax revenues fall. Declining resources stress city services, which makes economic development very difficult because employers and employees do not want to locate in a community with these issues. Student performance declines in troubled areas, and the attendant negative publicity makes all of the issues more difficult to rectify. This spiral effect has to be remedied in a comprehensive way. Economic development, education, crime reduction and quality of life are products of a comprehensive effort to improve neighborhoods. When service providers focus only on their limited responsibilities, the overall mission is often overlooked. When every city employee, whether a code inspector, police officer, waste hauler, firefighter, or neighborhood planner, understands the main mission, results will improve.
How will you attract both new businesses and new residents?
Small businesses are the lifeblood of even the biggest metropolitan areas. Much ado is made of major industrial relocations, but the heartbeat of a city is the small business community. In today’s economy, more and more businesses are not tied to a particular geography, but can locate virtually anywhere due to the communications networks used in the information age. For this reason, cities with high “livability quotients” attract businesses. Most people want safe neighborhoods, sustainable neighborhoods and neighborhoods with a real local sense of place. Progressive growing cities welcome and embrace diversity in every form, and this diversity unleashes the full range of human creativity and potential. This is the engine of economic growth. The suburban neighborhood, with automobile dependence, will still be around for decades, but increasing numbers of people, ranging from millennials to active retirees, want neighborhoods that are walkable, with amenities such as bike trails, walking paths or sidewalks, and connections to parks, sports, the arts and music. Little Rock is ideally situated to meet these needs because we have affordable real estate abounding in the central parts of the city. The employers come, the residential growth follows. Retail and service businesses always follow residential development. This is the essence of the growth cycle we need in Little Rock. We have some business incubator programs, which, if supported well, will yield great results over time.
What are some ways in which you will improve city infrastructure?
We have far more needs than we have money to address them. Little Rock has an estimated $1 billion in infrastructure needs. We have about $20 million per year to spend out of our operating budget for streets and drainage projects. Two bond issues provide another $150 million or so in the next several years to fund specific projects. However, we are like the gardener who has a big dry garden and only a little bit of water. We sprinkle a little here and there, but we don’t get the results we want because there is just not enough to go around.
We need more resources. If Little Rock can grow its population in areas where we already have water and sewer service available, we gain revenue without substantial additional costs. We need to develop vacant lots and rehabilitate vacant structures in our city. We thereby add population and get a greater percentage of the county road tax and the state turn-back money from gasoline taxes. These sources provide more infrastructure revenue with no new debt, taxes or fee increases. We also need to get more “bang” for the money we spend. We end up doing a large number of small projects because we have limited resources. Large projects which could really make a difference are done in multiple stages, and this adds to the costs of engineering and construction. We also end up spending a lot of our bond proceeds on basic repairs and deferred maintenance. Those costs really need to be funded from our annual operating revenue. These are just some of the complex issues that need to be managed with respect to our infrastructure.
The current national administration has talked about a national infrastructure plan. Such a plan is needed. Little Rock has a long-range infrastructure needs plan. We need a long-range capital funding plan to go with it.
What is your vision for Little Rock?
The notion of a succinct and comprehensive “vision” for a large, diverse city is a challenge. I certainly want a clean, healthy city that is providing economic opportunity for all of its residents, while also nurturing its youth, providing entertainment and relaxation to its citizens, and providing everyone with the opportunity to succeed in every way.
Perhaps the better concept of a vision is embodied by some measure of the city’s sense of unity and purpose. How is this to be judged? In some respects, the measure of a society can best be assessed by how it treats the young, the old, the fragile, the dispossessed and the defenseless. I subscribe to that measure, although it is less given to quantitative assessment.
I am an optimist who believes we must aspire to a higher vision.