Making an impact
Bentonville shines light (a tiny one) on its error
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.