The City of Fayetteville, like many local governments, is facing a budget squeeze as revenues have declined without a commensurate reduction in expenditures. In those instances, responsible public officials should explain to voters that either certain services will need to be cut or taxes raised.
We don’t have that kind of public official in Fayetteville. Instead, our local officials seem to fancy themselves as slick politicians in the minor leagues, honing their skills at the art of public manipulation so that someday they may get called up to the big leagues of deception and lording over other people.
To offset the shortfall in the city budget, Mayor Lionel Jordan and his backers have proposed grabbing money from the hotel, motel, and restaurant (HMR) tax that is currently dedicated for park development so that they can use it to cover park maintenance and then redirect the general operating funds currently devoted to park maintenance to other parts of the city budget.
Jordan and friends are saying they want voters to approve changes in the HMR tax so that the revenue can be used for things other than the development of parks, giving the city more “flexibility.” This is just doublespeak. The flexibility they want is the flexibility to reduce park development spending so that they can keep other city operations unchanged.
Personally, I prefer the development of more parks and the cutting of other city services. Our parks and public bike trails are some of the best things about Fayetteville. But I could be persuaded that we needed to defer additional park development to avoid cuts in other services if they presented the trade-offs directly and honestly. Make the case that additional park development is less important than other city services that would be continued.
But no. Our local public officials refuse to treat us like grown-ups and have to use deception rather than presenting us with difficult choices straightforwardly. This is the same kind of doublespeak nonsense we saw with the business license proposal. That wasn’t really about “helping promote local business.” That was about facilitating the taxation and regulation of businesses while helping the Chamber of Commerce effectively compel membership.
And don’t buy the fall-back argument on the HMR tax change that says we are in danger of developing so many parks that the cost of maintaining all of them would be prohibitive. If this were true, advocates for changing the HMR tax would need to present facts about rising park maintenance costs. They haven’t. Park maintenance costs have not been growing at a significantly faster rate than the city budget. In addition, park maintenance only costs $1.9 million out of a total city budget that exceeds $120 million. The HMR tax dedicated to park development generates about $2.3 million per year.
And also don’t buy the argument that we are just correcting a “mistake” from when the HMR tax was initially adopted. It may well be that city officials meant to include maintenance and development as potential uses of the tax, but that’s not what was on the ballot and what voters ultimately approved. We can’t know whether voters would have approved the measure if it had permitted the funds to be used for park maintenance as well as development. And voters are under no compulsion now to allow the money to be redirected for other purposes. If city officials want to convince voters to approve the measure, they need to make the case that those new bike trails we are developing are less important than other uses for the same money.