Helena-West Helena’s water crisis is the most recent example of how state government has failed Arkansans. 

  • Weeks after Helena-West Helena’s dated water system failed, problems with the city’s supply persist.
  • City officials estimate repair costs between 1 and 10 million dollars.
  • Meanwhile, the state announced another record surplus with this fiscal year bringing in $1.1 billion.
  • The state could use the surplus to help repair Helena’s water system, but instead granted the city a $100,000 loan. 
  • Helena-West Helena is the most recent example of state government not working for its people.
  • Food for thought: would the state have responded differently if a central AR water system was broken? 

One of the main functions of government is providing public goods and services.

This of course includes infrastructure that Arkansans rely upon everyday — think roads and bridges, schools and fire stations, water systems and sewage treatment plants. 

But when government neglects its duty to invest in public goods and services, people suffer. Right now, the people of Helena-West Helena are suffering. 

Over two weeks ago, the outdated water system in Helena-West Helena failed, causing the city to shut down water supply to residents. The National Guard was called in to provide potable drinking water. And the Governor announced she approved a $100,000 loan to “fix leaks” and help the city get a jumpstart on repairs. 

These responses seem good and well on paper, but temporary water handouts and a drop-in-the-bucket loan fall short of good governance when lawmakers and state leaders could have prioritized investing in infrastructure. The loan to Helena-West Helena feels especially egregious when you consider Arkansas sits on coffers of $1.16 billion, another record surplus for the state that’s more emblematic of neglectful hoarding than fiscal responsibility.

Offering the city a loan while lawmakers hoard money to justify income tax cuts for the rich is pretty bad optics. Officials estimate that the city’s water system will need a full overhaul and cost anywhere between one to fifteen million dollars. The loan Sanders approved is a meager 0.01% of the state’s current surplus. Why not just give the city the $100k? Sanders sure was eager to help the business community with fully forgivable loans during the height of the pandemic. When is it appropriate to help our neighbors and when is it not, Governor? 

What gives us the most heartburn is how the state has historically underserved Helena-West Helena and other Arkansas delta communities. Yes, race and inequity play a very big part in this. The median household income for the Helena-West Helena is $19,896 – one of the poorest in the entire country. Like the city’s worn out water system, much of the region’s infrastructure is dated, dilapidated, and in need of care. 

But the Sanders administration views basic government service as government dependency… unless those who are in need are white and/or live in more affluent parts of the state. Much like Sanders’ initiative to dole out forgivable loans for Arkansas businesses in 2020, the governor was quick to respond to tornado damage in central Arkansas this spring with words of reassurance and support at every turn. The message from the state was We’re here for you; we will help you, and no expense will be spared to do so. The message for Helena-West Helena? Here’s a loan; good luck.

Helena-West Helena has worked day and night to get their water system back up and running. But with each fix, more issues arise. In a way, the water supply crisis is a metaphor for our state: more problems emerge when we slap temporary bandaids on the state’s problems. 

We’d prefer our state government use its billion dollars of taxpayer money to pay for basic things Arkansans need, like drinking water, roads, and broadband. We do not prefer a state government that hoards people’s tax dollars so the rich in our state can get richer while those in Helena-West Helena worry about clean water. 

Arkansas has the funds to improve people’s lives. But we don’t take action because we hold that money to justify bad policy. Our state sends out $100k bandaids to communities that desperately need attention, pretending it will suffice. Meanwhile real solutions to help improve the lives of people — solutions taxpayers pay into — go ignored.

The folks in Helena-West Helena, and Arkansans across the state, deserve better.