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Little Rock mayoral rivals on common ground; ideas for budget, homeless shared

Three of Little Rock's five mayoral candidates discussed their ideas for addressing homelessness and prisoner re-entry in a Wednesday morning forum that also brought other issues in the city's budget into the spotlight.

Baker Kurrus, Warwick Sabin and Vincent Tolliver expressed support for wraparound services that address all of an individual's needs, such as mental health or addiction services, in addition to shelter. Frank Scott Jr. expressed the same view when reached by phone.

Scott said he was unable to attend because of a work obligation.

Glen Schwarz, the fifth candidate, was said to be out of town. The forum was held at the Willie Hinton Neighborhood Resource Center and hosted by the Arkansas Homeless Coalition, Central Arkansas Re-Entry Coalition and Central Arkansas Team Care for the Homeless.

The most recent count showed nearly 1,000 homeless people in the Little Rock metropolitan area, with more than half of them living without any shelter. The recidivism rate within three years among the general inmate population in Arkansas is 56 percent, Central Arkansas Re-Entry Coalition Chairman Leta Anthony told the candidates.

Kurrus, a 64-year-old attorney and business consultant, said the city should address those problems with a compassionate yet systematic approach rather than by relying on grant funding and "one-off" programs. He said the city needs to make its budgetary "pie" bigger.

"If you ask me where there's a big pile of money in our city budget, it's not there," Kurrus said. "We can continue to do what we're doing, but we have to grow and revitalize and get more sales-tax revenue and property-tax revenue, and then we go from there."

Scott, a 34-year-old bank executive, said he favored greater coordination among existing service providers and collaboration with faith-based organizations.

"Little Rock has to bring forth all organizations in order to leverage the existing resources," he said.

Scott and other candidates said they were in favor of creative solutions, such as a "tiny home" complex seen in cities including Fayetteville.

Near the forum's end, Sabin, a 41-year-old Democratic state representative, brought another issue into the spotlight, to applause from the audience -- the $300,000 the city contributes to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce each year.

The city restarted its payments to the chamber in April 2017, after a constitutional amendment approved by voters the year before made it legal for localities to enter into economic-development contracts with area chambers, or other private entities. A judge had ruled in 2015 that the payments were unconstitutional.

"Imagine if we spent that $300,000 in a way that directly benefited the kinds of services that we're talking about?" he said.

Sabin later told an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter that the lack of transparency or accountability associated with those funds should be corrected immediately, at the very least. He said in a text message that he is open to redirecting the funds to "more productive purposes and pressing needs."

A yearly audit of the chamber's economic-development fund, which details how the city's public funding is spent as well as private dollars donated by companies in the organization, is available to the public.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Kurrus said being a part of a regional economic-development consortium is essential for Little Rock to be competitive. Still, he said, he would push for transparency measures to make sure the city is getting its money's worth, such as having the chamber report monthly to the city board.

"I would look very, very hard at every dollar we spend, especially something that the public's concerned about," Kurrus said.

Scott said over the phone that he would bring economic development "in house" as mayor, something Sabin also said he was open to.

"I plan to bring economic development back into City Hall, whereas the mayor and city leadership will be leading economic development and the chamber will be a specific partner," Scott said. "If I'm going to be held accountable to jobs growth, I'm going to be leading it."

Tolliver, a 51-year-old writer and activist, said in an email that he was "dead-set" against the $300,000 contribution and that he would like to see the money earmarked for increasing the salaries of teachers in the Little Rock School District. The budget for the city does not include the school district, which is a separate taxing authority and receives no city subsidy.

Schwarz, a 64-year-old marijuana decriminalization activist, could not be reached Wednesday. Little Rock's mayoral election is Nov. 6, and early voting begins Oct. 22.

Metro on 10/11/2018

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