Mak­ing an im­pact

Ben­tonville shines light (a tiny one) on its er­ror

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

The city of Ben­tonville’s re­cent dis­cov­ery it in­ac­cu­rately cal­cu­lated im­pact fees on four multi-fam­ily de­vel­op­ments be­tween 2009 and 2015 cost the city nearly $900,000, let­ting de­vel­op­ers off the hook for fees de­signed to en­sure the bur­dens of growth aren’t borne en­tirely by the city’s tax­pay­ers.

For this $ 877,841 worth of growth-re­lated im­pacts, the tax­pay­ers will just have to buck up, ap­par­ently.

In the some­what con­ser­va­tive world of Ben­ton County pol­i­tics, that might be some­thing to cel­e­brate. Af­ter all, we’re told of­ten that the less gov­ern­ment takes from the pock­ets of tax­pay­ers, the bet­ter. Amer­i­cans know bet­ter how to spend their money than gov­ern­ment, the tax­cut mantra goes.

But the money in­volved in Ben­tonville’s rev­e­la­tion wasn’t vol­un­tar­ily re­moved from the city’s cof­fers. Rather, city of­fi­cials fig­ured out this year that staffers had, for six years, mis­cal­cu­lated pay­ments due from builders of multi-fam­ily hous­ing de­vel­op­ments. The folks who do the math in city gov­ern­ment cal­cu­lated what four multi-fam­ily de­vel­op­ments owed as com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ments when the fees as­so­ci­ated with multi-fam­ily de­vel­op­ments should have been ap­plied.

Those four de­vel­op­ments owed the city $997,326, based on the proper cal­cu­la­tions. What they paid was $119,485.

In a town known as host to the world’s largest re­tailer — which brings in that much ev­ery minute of the day — maybe the $877,841 dif­fer­ence doesn’t seem like much. In most or­ga­ni­za­tions, es­pe­cially most mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments, that rep­re­sents a lot of pub­lic fund­ing.

Ben­tonville is do­ing just about all it can: It’s shrug­ging off the loss. Af­ter all this time, what can city lead­ers re­ally do?

City staffers messed up, in a big way. Tax­pay­ers de­serve bet­ter. But we’ll give the city credit for re­veal­ing the fi­nan­cial mess vol­un­tar­ily. There’s a town or two around here where such a dis­cov­ery would only in­spire a search for brooms to sweep the mat­ter un­der the car­pet.

What we don’t care for are the pri­vate, one- on- one meet­ings the city staff had with each of Ben­tonville’s al­der­men be­fore any of this was re­vealed pub­licly in a sin­gle-page ex­pla­na­tion and a City Coun­cil pre­sen­ta­tion last­ing only a few min­utes. The pri­vate meet­ings with City Coun­cil mem­bers lasted be­tween 20 min­utes and an hour.

Troy Gal­loway, who ably heads the city depart­ment in­volved, rea­soned a pub­lic dis­cus­sion “would have taken a long time. It would have been much more of a con­fus­ing topic.”

Every­one knows Mayor Bob McCaslin likes to run an ef­fi­cient City Coun­cil meet­ing. So al­der­men got plenty of op­por­tu­nity to hear an ex­pla­na­tion and ask ques­tions in pri­vate. That, in turn, means few of the ques­tions — and an­swers — play out in pub­lic view.

So, the logic ap­pears to be thus: The is­sue is so com­plex, al­der­men need time to ab­sorb it and ask ques­tions. But in pub­lic, a sin­gle page of writ­ten ex­pla­na­tion, a brief pre­sen­ta­tion, and let’s move on to the next agenda item.

The ef­fect was to take a mat­ter of poor man­age­ment of pub­lic re­sources and min­i­mize its ex­po­sure to a pub­lic that should be able to ex­pect bet­ter.

The er­ror came to the at­ten­tion of city staff when a de­vel­oper late last year ques­tioned a huge dif­fer­ence in the fees charged for a new de­vel­op­ment com­pared to one built in 2014. At least some­one in the pri­vate sec­tor was pay­ing at­ten­tion. Ben­tonville of­fi­cials say they’ve im­ple­mented ad­di­tional steps to scru­ti­nize fee cal­cu­la­tions in the fu­ture, which is a good les­son to learn.

And a costly one.

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