A recent City Council resolution would divert nearly half the tax revenue promised to an initiative to aid in the revitalization of downtown Pine Bluff, but the city’s mayor says she has another plan.
The City Council voted Monday to take $2.1 million of the estimated $4.5 million being raised through a sales tax, approved by nearly 70% of taxpayers in 2017, and split it among several city departments.
The resolution comes in the midst of a decades-long decline in population and tax base in Pine Bluff.
Mayor Shirley Washington announced Friday that she had chosen not to veto Monday’s 5-3 vote to divert the funds from Go Forward Pine Bluff, meaning the effort to bolster the city’s downtown area could lose approximately $10.5 million over the next five years.
Signing Statement on Resolution 4212
Washington said in a four-page statement that she has “significant reservations” about the resolution, and, although she approved it, she intends to “alter this action by a forthcoming proposal” at the next council meeting on Oct. 21.
“This decision blatantly contradicts the promise made to spend these funds on the 26 initiatives,” Washington said in the statement. “Furthermore, it hinders the ability of [Go Forward Pine Bluff] to complete several projects and initiatives for which it has already planned.”
Ivan Whitfield, the council member who proposed Monday’s resolution, said Saturday that he did not understand why Washington would sign off on a resolution with which she had reservations.
“Why sign it? That’s my response,” Whitfield said. “If she really felt that bad about the resolution, why sign it if she had the authority to veto? I believe without a doubt that she knew then and she knows now that it’s a good piece of legislation and it’s needed in the city of Pine Bluff.”
Using the money for other city needs is legal because the intended purpose of the funds was never codified. But civic leaders like Washington campaigned in support of the temporary, seven-year, five-eighths percent sales tax on the promise that the revenue would go toward economic improvement projects.
“At the heart of the 2017 proposal was a promise, one some elected officials are now attempting to break,” Washington wrote in her statement. “I do not take their actions lightly.”
The resolution would in 2020 allocate $1 million to the city’s drainage needs; $300,000 each to the Police Department, youth and community resources, and the convention center; and $200,000 to the Fire Department.
Council members Donald Hatchett, Lloyd Holcomb Jr., Bruce Lockett and Steven Mays voted in support of the resolution. Joni Alexander, Glen Brown Jr. and Win Trafford voted against it. Alexander, Brown and Trafford did not return phone calls Friday.
Whitfield, a former Pine Bluff chief of police, announced previously that he will oppose Washington for the mayor’s position next year. He said last week that the city has others needs that should take priority, such as the underperforming drainage system, public-safety needs and better youth engagement.
Washington said in her statement that she has “identified alternative means” to address those concerns without taking money from Go Forward Pine Bluff’s projects.
Washington said she would introduce a pay raise for emergency responders in the 2020 budget, and said the city’s drainage system and youth-activity needs are already being addressed. In the case of activities for young people, Washington said Go Forward Pine Bluff is working to create safe, constructive spaces for residents.
“Extracting money from [Go Forward Pine Bluff] to address these needs is irresponsible when the city is currently working on these matters,” Washington said in her statement.
Whitfield, however, said the Police Department needs equipment and upgrades that would not be covered by a pay raise. Instead, Whitfield said, the department needs to have the money to replace tools and to raise pay.
“The mayor says she does not need the $300,000 because she said she can give the officers a raise in 2020,” Whitfield said. “They need both. If the equipment fails, the officer fails.”
Whitfield said the youth activities program that Go Forward Pine Bluff is creating and the buildings that are being renovated are only in downtown — not in the neighborhoods where residents live.
“Go Forward Pine Bluff has no plans if it’s not downtown,” Whitfield said. “These needs that I’m addressing are in our community, where people live. They are addressing things on Main Street. What about Cherry Street? What about the east side of town or north side of town? There’s no plan for that at all, and there lies the problem.”
In 2015, about 100 community members laid out a plan to bolster the city’s education, economic development, infrastructure and quality of life. The finalized plan is the bedrock of Go Forward Pine Bluff, a private-public cooperative.
Among the organization’s 26 projects are the recently completed construction of a public aquatics center, renovating the community center and aiding teachers who want to go back to school.
Ryan Whatley, director of Go Forward Pine Bluff, said Tuesday that shifting the money to city budgets could create distrust in future elections and would greatly hinder the organization’s efforts.
Whatley said Friday that the mayor’s statement gives City Council members who perhaps would not have otherwise voted to divert the organization’s funds another way to support emergency services and city needs.
“There was no alternative on the table; the mayor gave them an alternative,” Whatley said. “There’s no room in Pine Bluff for these kinds of politics. We are in a situation where we’re coming off the lifeline. What you do when you play those kind of politics is you give pause to investors who are thinking about multimillion-dollar ventures here.”
Washington did not include details about her forthcoming legislation in the statement, and declined to answer more specific questions about how she planned to address the council’s resolution.
“I look forward to the passage of further legislation, which will remedy this disregard for promises to the public,” Washington said. “As past behavior is often a predictor of future performance, the willingness of some to blatantly break promises to our citizens is something alarming.”
Metro on 10/13/2019