Leader Blues

Friday, December 18, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Quorum court drops the ball

Is incompetence too strong a word? Let’s make it lack of diligence. The Pulaski County government — in this case the library system — must dig itself out of a hole owing to the bumbling of county officials. To be specific: County Judge Floyd “Buddy” Villines and the quorum court.

The Arkansas Supreme Court in a ruling that anyone should have anticipated said the county had illegally collected more than a million in real and personal property taxes in Little Rock last year because the quorum court did not formally levy a library tax that had been approved by the city’s voters in the time that was required. So the county will have to find a way to give the money back to the property owners, and the library will have to curtail some programs or lay off employees for a spell.

The quorum court tax levy is a mere technicality that the county judge thought was not very material. After all, the city’s voters had overwhelmingly approved the library millage at a December 2007 special election. Why not just start collecting it in the new year? In lieu of an ordinance from the quorum court, Judge Villines ordered the higher tax rates that had been approved by the voters and when a few taxpayers filed a suit, the county argued that it had complied substantially with the law, just not that little technicality. A circuit judge agreed to let it slide, but, unanimously, the Supreme Court said it could not overlook the law. As redundant as the formal quorum court levy seems to be, it has been the law for many years.

The quorum court had already adopted an ordinance levying all the ad-valorem taxes for 2008 when the special election occurred and it would have to adopt a new ordinance within 30 days to reflect the 1.5-mill library increase or else the collection would have to wait until the quorum court enacted its tax ordinance at the end of 2008 and then start collecting the tax in 2009. Now the money will have to be refunded and the tax will stay on the books a year longer.

This is a venial transgression by well-meaning officials who were merely implementing the voters’ wishes. But it is part of a bothersome lack of diligence by county officials. How many do we need to mention? Here are the freshest: the close call on the county use tax in which a snafu nearly cost the county millions (the Supreme Court let it slide on a technicality, 4 to 3); the hiring and promoting of Ron Quillin, a man unqualified for the job and with a criminal record, who got caught stealing from the county when he was the county controller; and years of misjudgments and bungling in the endless jail crisis.

We have an idea that the omnibus pay increases this fall for all county employees, including quorum court members, will prove to be another. We will be fortunate if county officials are not saying “oops” again a year from now.