Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Jonesboro Goes Bananas as Battle Over Expansive Property Code Reaches Climax

Today is election day in Jonesboro. On the ballot is not only a City-Council race to fill in the term of a departed Councilman, but whether the city will repeal its recently and controversially adopted "2012 International Property Maintenance Code".  The fight over the code has been emotional, and as you read on you will see why.

The code was originally adopted after a head-fake from Mayor Harold Perrin and a City Council which contained a member who lived outside the city. When discussions began on whether to adopt the IPMC it was so controversial that they passed the question to a "Blue Ribbon Commission". Even though those Commissions are typically used to provide cover for something that the powers-that-be want done anyway, the decision was still contentious within the Commission. Eventually the Commission passed a resolution (6-3) that the City Council adopt the IPMC with allowable special provisions.

In the city itself the code was much more controversial. People were showing up at every city council meeting to protest. This led the City Council to pass a resolution to suspend "indefinitely" consideration of implementing the IPMC. Mayor Perrin said that the suspension of consideration applied to the IPMC, but that the city could continue to discuss developing their own code. He prefaced that with conciliatory statements like "maybe this wasn't the right code" and gave every indication that the crisis was over.

As soon as the concerned citizens went away, Perrin rammed through the IPMC. Not that the city Council was comfortable with the plan. The city council vote was tied 6-6, so Perrin broke the tie with his own vote (Mayors are allowed to vote to break ties). One of the city councilmen who voted to ram through the IPMC was later found to be living outside the city limits of Jonesboro, and thus ineligible for the office in which he served. His replacement will also be selected in today's voting.

The citizens who were against the code were outraged by the Mayor's head-fake. Many of them were part of the area Tea Party who were practiced at turning anger into action. They organized a petition drive to put a repeal effort on the ballot. In addition, they recruited James Bowman to run for the vacated city council seat. Those two items are what is being voted on today.

What the IPMC does is essentially criminalize poverty. Not just poverty, but it would run out working class people who can't afford all the property improvements that the more Toni sections of the city enjoy. For example, my house in Pea Ridge is one of many which does not have a paved driveway. There are even a few businesses in town without a paved driveway. Under the code, they would all have to be paved. Dan and Cheryl Lakey of Jonesboro were cited under the code for failure to have dog houses for each of their two dogs- even though they bring them in every night. According to Mark Pillow, one of the more active supporters of the repeal movement, Code Enforcement Officials have asked neighbors of those who favor the repeal for access to their backyard so that they can spy on opponents in order to discover violations.

The fine for failing to have your property up to code starts at $150, but there is no upper limit on the amount one may be fined for the third offense. People with working class homes would have no choice but to sell out to a developer cheap in order to get out from under the fines. The code can be used to run poor people out of town and send them as economic refugees to surrounding areas. Its effect will be the forced gentrification of the city.

The code would is not limited to the exterior of homes. The interior of homes are also required to meet the new code. It applies to residential and commercial properties. Pillow says that many businesses are secretly helping the repeal effort. They are doing so secretly because they don't want to lose the business of the wealthy folks in town who are tired of their upper-class eyes being forced to gaze upon disorder within the property lines of their poorer neighbors. Helping their neighbors out, or buying the property at a fair market value and fixing it up, seems to be beneath them. The solution they have hit upon is to use the city government to run those miserable working class peasants out of town.

Pillow says that Fort Smith adopted a much gentler version of the code with a hardship clause, and which did not apply to all structures, and had a maximum fine of $500. Even still, Pillow says they had 10,000 "violations" in year one. Pillow speculates that after a Tea Party group with which he is associated helped defeat a sales tax increase within the city, that the Mayor is looking to replace that "lost" revenue with money from code violations. It is also easier to apply for certain grants if a community has enacted the code, so the rich get richer.

Pillow has complained of despicable tactics by some supporters of the code. This is beyond the usual tearing up of yard signs, though he reports a very high incidence of "Repeal" signs being removed and destroyed. He says that real estate companies have been threatened with being blacklisted by two tony property owner's associations in the city. There have been incidents like the one I described with the Lakeys.

Pillow says that, just before he was scheduled to appear in a debate with code proponent Teresa Beck,  someone called the Department of Human Services and reported that his nephew was in a house which was without electric power and should be investigated by DHS. He was without power- for a few hours while maintenance was being conducted down the street. Pillow said he had a visit with DHS investigator Gary Robertson, who was sent to see if the state needed to intervene due to this teenager having to go without power for a few hours!

Even worse, someone called the boy's grandmother (Mark Pillow's mother) who has dementia. and threatened to have the boy removed from the home and placed in state custody. She did not understand the call, but handed the phone to Pillow's brother. He kept the threats from his mother because he figured it was all about shaking up Mark Pillow just before a big debate. Pillow suspected something was up because the opposition went from firmly opposing a debate to demanding one immediately. Pillow had arranged for a stand-in to replace him the day before- a move that he says sent the other side into a frenzy when they found out.

Proponents of the code want to make Jonesboro into a gentrified community. They often cite Auburn Alabama as their model. Auburn used the IPMC to push all of their working class and below outside the city limits to surrounding communities. They of course live in somewhat of a bubble because Auburn University is located there. Tons of money pour into the city from around the state even if they have no manufacturing or normal economy. The vision is for Arkansas State University to do the same for Jonesboro. Even if it was morally right to use government force to push out the less fortunate, I don't think their model is economically feasible for a number of reasons.

First of all, Auburn had its success as the higher education bubble was swelling. Jonesboro is trying to pull this stunt just as the higher ed bubble is starting to burst. Auburn rode the wave of federal money and lottery money thrown at higher ed over the last 20 years. Jonesboro is trying to buy into that market just as it has peaked. I think they are going to have to find another path to prosperity besides counting on the rest of the state handing them money and fining their own citizens for being poor.

Secondly, Jonesboro is somewhat larger than the town of Auburn, at least it is now before all the have-nots have been purged by this new code.  Jonesboro has over 71,000 people. Auburn has barely 60,000. If higher ed growth was just starting a 20 year run, instead of winding one down, then the plan might work- if ASU and Auburn were equal in terms of financial cash cows. They are not close. ASU is a fine mid-size university in a pleasant small city. It's not Auburn and that should be OK.

Auburn's main campus has a budget of $942 million dollars a year. ASU has a budget of only $153 million. Auburn also has over 27,000 students. ASU has 14,000 in Jonesboro and its my guess that on average they come from less affluent households than that of the Auburn student body. The private business potential from servicing them is simply nowhere near as great in Jonesboro compared to Auburn. ASU has endowments of 55 million dollars. This is dwarfed by Auburn's $642 million in endowments.

My take is that some among the upper class in the city have gotten pretentious. They imagine themselves as being something more than they are. This hubris and ambition actually makes them less than what they ought to be- benevolent and generous leading citizens of what is after all a nice Arkansas small city.  Instead, they are willing to run over those less fortunate than themselves in what I believe will be a futile attempt to turn their grand illusions about themselves into reality.


The code was repealed by a vote of very nearly 2-1. It was a giant defeat for Mayor Harold Perrin, but guys like that don't give up just because the hoi peloi don't like what they are up to. On the city Council Seat side, there will be a run-off, but James Bowman won't be in it as he finished third in a six man race. It turns out the repeal effort was split on who they wanted to fill that seat. Some business interests in the coalition like the idea of a code that steps on other people's toes, just not theirs.


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