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Council members make case for "Go Forward Pine Bluff" campaign

Updated: Aug 4

Pine Bluff Ward 2 Council Member Glen Brown Jr. (left) listens to proceedings during a City Council meeting July 17. A three-eighths-cent sales tax, if placed on a November ballot and passed by voters, would benefit police and fire departments in Pine Bluff.

When it comes to the five-eighths-cent and the three-eighths-cent sales taxes, both of which are sponsored by Go Forward Pine Bluff, it’s a topic that has the community torn and split over the decision of whether to support them. An upcoming special election, if approved by the Pine Bluff City Council, will be held in November with both taxes back on the ballot from a failed special election that was held in May.

The five-eighths-cent sales tax, for a period of seven years, would be used to fund general purposes of city government including, and without limitation, the construction and operation of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Cultural District; infrastructure necessary to develop housing in the city; park and recreational improvements to include the construction and operation of a movie theater to be owned by the city; and upgrades to existing parks.

The three-eighths-cent sales tax would be used for police and fire department purposes including, and without limitation, an annual bonus on or before Dec. 25 for each uniformed police and fire officer in a minimum amount of $2,000; an annual contribution to the insurance premium of each uniformed police officer and fire officer in the minimum amount of $1,200; and capital purchases for police and fire departments.

The taxes failed during a May special election with a vote of 2,021 against and 1,904 for the extension of the five-eighths-cent sales tax that funds Go Forward Pine Bluff. In a separate vote on the three-eighths-cent tax, the count was 1,964 against and 1,944 for. That tax would have been permanent and provided funding for public safety initiatives. Go Forward CEO Ryan Watley said that the group behind the public-private initiative has been working with the City Council to bring it back to the voters.

“One of the significant differences between the May election and the November proposal is that there are specific items on the ballot in addition to continuing the improved services,” said Watley. “We want citizens to trust their elected officials and put their full faith in the ballot question.” To improve public trust, Watley said they will also improve the frequency of appearing before the council to report information to the public. Watley said Go Forward takes fault for not effectively communicating to the citizens about the challenges and success of the work.

“Following the last campaign, Go Forward Pine Bluff began immediately restructuring our staff and messaging to increase transparency,” he said. “We must be proactive to combat misinformation about the partnership that we have with the city of Pine Bluff.” Several council members weighed in on this matter and voiced their support or lack thereof for the upcoming special election.

GLEN BROWN JR. Council Member and Public Safety Chair Glen Brown Jr. also sits on the Go Forward Public-Private Review Committee. The committee consists of Mayor Shirley Washington and Jeannie Epperson representing the public side; and Tommy May, Mary Pringos and Eric Walden representing the private side.

This committee reviews project requests for compliance with the plan and forwards them to the City Council committee and/or full council for approval. According to City Resolution 4079, all expenditures of the sales tax are to be appropriated by the city council.

Bringing the tax back was a collective decision and according to Brown, the tax is needed in more ways than one.

“While our focus is to the future — through the five-eighths-cent tax — we’ve been able to address some dilemmas that demanded immediate attention. Such as making up for the funding shortfall to complete the aquatic center and [upgrading] the Convention Center that is now a competitive site to host events besides King Cotton, like the 5A [state] basketball tournament,” said Brown. “There was a demonstrated need to renovate the Pine Bluff Community Center. The tax also pays the salary of the grant writer who has brought in close to four million in new money to our community.” Brown said the community simply cannot abandon the funding source necessary to address long-standing issues.

“The tax alone does not have sufficient funds or future revenues to support the completion of current projects. However, Go Forward Pine Bluff has raised private monies to close the gap,” said Brown. “That is essentially why public-private partnerships are important for the city of Pine Bluff and affirms why the city needs this source of revenue beyond 2024.” Brown recalled the investor who purchased the former Walmart building and the impact that covid-19 had on making the vision of turning it into a movie theater come to fruition. “He has left the negotiating table mostly because of the impact of covid-19 on the theater industry,” said Brown.

Brown said Pine Bluff citizens are traveling to other cities for entertainment and recreational purposes, but the tax would address that issue by funding a movie theater project. “The lawyers from the Friday Law Firm drafted this portion based on the parks department being the most fitting entity to host a theater as recreation. If approved, we will issue a request for qualifications for a proven operator such as Malco, AMC, etc.,” he said. “We will also continue our search for investors to buy into the theater. In the event we are not able to attract an investor, we will have the funds to do the project and increase our recreation/entertainment options in the city of Pine Bluff.” Brown said it is not uncommon for cities to step outside common recreation to keep tax dollars from leaving the city. To strengthen the public safety tax, according to Brown, conversations occurred during the last campaign with members of the police and fire departments. Officers wanted to know how they would benefit other than their salaries.

“Their position results from a past administration promising to use tax initiatives to support public safety yet redefine or expand public safety to include roads and streetlights,” said Brown. “The November proposal aims to solve that concern by listing minimum compensation objectives.” Citizens can expect to see more aggressive blight removal in each ward, quality affordable housing, and a plan to lift people out of poverty and homelessness if the tax is passed, according to Brown.

“Partnerships with UAPB and SEARK will be critical concerning economic development and the workforce,” said Brown. “Beautification efforts in neighborhoods should also be expected. We would also like to expand the grant writer’s office.”

LLOYD HOLCOMB JR. Lloyd Holcomb Jr. is the son of former councilwoman Irene Holcomb, who holds a leadership title with Go Forward as a board director. Lloyd Holcomb Jr. sits on several committees including Ordinances & Resolutions, Development and Planning, Public Safety and is the chairman of the Administration Committee.

His support for Go Forward has been publicly displayed at several council meetings. In a recent letter to the editor, Holcomb shared some of the progress in which Go Forward played a part, including the remodeling of the Pine Bluff Community Center, the addition of the Carl A. Redus Jr. Aquatic Center, Convention Center upgrades, 200 demolished structures, and the reopening of Harbor Oaks Golf Course.

“These results represent significant progress over seven years, not to mention this work took place amid natural disasters and the pandemic,” said Holcomb, adding the public and private monies used to fuel this work will go away in September 2024. “More work and funding are needed to continue developing our city at an aggressive pace. Those efforts will slow down without funding, and much of it will cease to exist.” Holcomb explains that the city’s general fund can only sustain all these aggressive initiatives with the existing tax and the November election gives them less than a year to know if funding will be available to continue or which initiatives they can support without the tax.

Noting that the specifics of the ballots included supporting the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Cultural District, Holcomb said the city of Pine Bluff decided to adopt the project. Ji m my Cu n n i n g h a m Jr., director of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Cultural District project, has publicly expressed his displeasure with the Go Forward-sponsored tax and has verbalized that he didn’t support it even though it funded a project he is so passionate about.

“The complete project is expected to exceed $6 million. The city only has the $2 million committed,” said Holcomb. “Mr. Cunningham has done a great job gathering this information and it is understood that he will assist the city by applying for grants.” Holcomb said the citizens have expressed the desire to see this become part of the downtown revitalization. “If approved by the council and voters, we will continue to work with the Delta Rhythm & Bayous project,” said Holcomb. “As a city, we are committed to recognizing contributions from all people who have shaped our city’s incredible culture and that will cost money.” When it comes to the public safety tax, Holcomb said the fire department is in dire need of a training center. Despite raising both police and fire departments’ overall salaries by 15%, the challenge remains with recruiting, retaining and offering competitive incentives and wages.

“Public safety is a top priority for all Pine Bluff citizens, and juvenile crime intervention, which also received monies from the sales tax, could not be stressed enough,” he said. The public safety and Go Forward initiative failed by 20 and 119 votes, respectively.

Holcomb said citizens have time to express their concerns or support before the City Council votes.

“We hope this fosters good debate about our city’s challenges and bring about a positive outcome for the city of Pine Bluff,” said Holcomb.

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