Tuesday, November 29, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Suits threaten tourism funds

The Jacksonville Advertising and Promotion Commission last week balked once again at funding requests from the military museum, boys and girls club and the Jacksonville Historical District.

This year the museum is asking for $40,000 in aid after having received $400,000 in city aid in the past decade. Some commissioners may be willing to give the museum $20,000 for next year. This type of city funding to private groups is in jeopardy because of lawsuits challenging the practice in Little Rock, North Little Rock and elsewhere.

According to our reporter Rick Kron, even the commission’s donations to the air base open house and air rodeo participation have come under fire.

The commission is following the advice of City Attorney Robert Bamburg, who thinks the outcome of a lawsuit against North Little Rock and Little Rock could have a negative effect on Jacksonville if the commission approved the requests.

Bamburg warned the commission that taxpayers could sue the city for “misappropriation of public funds and it usually becomes a class action suit.” The attorney said there would be huge legal fees and the city would have to pay back every hamburger tax customer and every motel room tax customer who support the A&P commission with a two-cent sales tax.

But the funding issue is not completely dead as the commission tabled the requests until their Dec. 19 meeting. It was not that the commissioners were unsympathetic to the needs of the museum and boys and girls club, but felt they would be crashing legal lines.

Bamburg told the commission not to fund nonprofit entities after a case filed in 2013 against Little Rock and North Little Rock by three individuals who claim the City of Little Rock, since 1993, had given the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce nearly $4 million in “unlawfully appropriated funds generated by tax revenue,” plus another $100,000 of tax money to Metro Little Rock Alliance.

North Little Rock is charged by the three individuals of giving more than $750,000 of tax money to the North Little Rock Economic Development Fund.

The suit, which is now in the briefing period at the state Supreme Court, contends that giving tax money to private corporations, even non-profit, violates the state constitution. The suit says those two cities “misused and illegally spent public funds generated from tax revenue.”

Bamburg believes Jacksonville helping to fund the museum, the boys and girls club and the Air Force open house and rodeo participation all falls into the same category as the suit details.

Bamburg told commissioners that Issue 3, which passed in the November general election, is not the cure-all for the dilemma the commission is facing. “Issue 3 only refers to using tax money for economic development,” Bamburg said. “Advertising and promotion commission funds are not mentioned or referred to in Issue 3.

The new downtown historical district purchased Jim’s Pawn Shop to be converted into a city museum and small coffee shop. But after the purchase, the group discovered the roof needed repairs. If the city owned it, there would be no problem, but the historical district group is a nonprofit, non-city entity and Bamburg fears it falls under the prevue of the lawsuit.

The downtown historical district had asked the commission for $25,000, and it could get $5,000. But if a judge tells cities to stop funding private groups, they may never see another dime again from Jacksonville. This might be a good time for volunteers and benefactors to pitch in and save these worthy institutions from closing.