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Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Presidential library on shaky financial ground

July 30, 2000

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— Even before the first shovelful of earth is turned, the planned Bill Clinton Presidential Library has become entangled in a dispute that threatens to embarrass city leaders.

There's little chance the $80 million-plus library won't be built, but the Arkansas Supreme Court is considering a taxpayer's lawsuit claiming the city illegally tapped tax accounts to buy the land for the project. There's no word on when a ruling might come from the court, which is on its annual summer recess until September.

It's just one more dig at the president by his opponents, said Clinton's library project leader, Skip Rutherford.

"They think, 'I can't vote against him any more, but I sure can mess with his library,'" Rutherford said.

Although some people criticized any effort to honor the impeached president, the city wanted the library so badly that it agreed to buy a 27-acre site for $8.5 million.

Voters weren't asked. Other cities were vying for the library, and Rutherford said there wasn't time for an election.

"We had offers in state and out of state that were ready to go," Rutherford said. "We didn't care what fund it was coming out of, we just didn't want a contingent offer."

The dispute arose because Little Rock dedicated park revenues -- including fees from the zoo and golf courses -- to pay off bonds to finance the library land purchase.

However, those revenues often are supplemented by city general fund revenues to pay for park operations. And part of the general fund comes from taxes, which can't be used to pay off bonds.

The city made a $470,000 bond payment at the beginning of July. It used only parks revenue but city leaders said they would likely have to tap the general fund later for park operations.

The lawsuit was filed by Nora Harris, a resident who has sued the city on other tax issues and who calls the land purchase arrangement a shell game.

"They can't look at anyone and say they're not using tax money to pay off the bonds," said her lawyer, David Henry.

A judge upheld the city's payment arrangement, and Harris appealed directly to the state's highest court.

Harris supporters include Miles King, a real estate developer, who said he would have liked to see the land acquired differently.

"I'm not opposed to the library and its concept. It's the method by which they went about trying to pull off the deal to get it financed that I'm opposed to," he said.

Construction will be funded by donations. Rutherford said the project will cost $80 million to $125 million.

No matter how the Arkansas Supreme Court rules, the city intends to keep its commitment on the land but will have to find another way to pay off the bonds.

The library site is in the city's booming River Market district, overlooking the Arkansas River downtown. Long-mothballed warehouses have been turned into bars, restaurants, shops and apartments. An amphitheater presents concerts.

Even without a construction timetable, the Clinton Library already has influenced other development in the area. Acxiom Corp., a Conway-based data warehousing company, plans a $25 million, 12-story building there.

"Knowing that the library was going to be here was a key factor in our decision because it demonstrated to us that there would be continued development in this area," Acxiom chairman Charles Morgan said.

The library would include a museum, a repository for Clinton's official records and classrooms. An academic wing would offer public policy degrees with the University of Arkansas.

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