Pine Bluff City Council members discussed for the first time Thursday a proposal for a new 5/8-cent sales tax intended to raise funds to improve the city.

The Go Forward Pine Bluff Task Force proposed the tax in January after more than a year of study as part of 27 recommendations involving education, infrastructure, economic development and quality of life aimed at halting the city’s population decline and attracting new businesses.

The task force projects the tax, which will sunset after seven years, to generate $32.5 million. The money would be combined with another $20 million in grants and donations procured by the 501(c)(3) Go Forward Pine Bluff not-for-profit corporation.

Simmons First Foundation Chairman Tommy May said the public-private partnership was modeled after a similar arrangement in El Dorado.

The tax must be approved by a majority of voters in a special election in order to pass. The council will consider legislation to levy the tax and hold the special election. The council will hear three readings of the ordinances before voting at its March 20 meeting whether to approve a ballot measure. A special election on the tax must then be held within 90 days, likely falling in June.

It will also consider a resolution expressing the city’s intent to use the funds as recommended by the Go Forward Pine Bluff Task Force.

The resolution is not binding, assistant city attorney Joe Childers said, other than as a political commitment by the council to the voters.

“It’s designed to give the voters some idea what this may be used for,” Childers said.

May said the public-private partnership was needed in order to tackle the wide range of issues that Pine Bluff faces, which straddle economic development, education, infrastructure and quality of life. Those areas are typically overseen by different governmental entities.

He said the Go Forward Pine Bluff corporation would be staffed by experts in those areas to implement the recommendations of the Go Forward Pine Bluff Task Force.

“We’re basically hiring and paying somebody to drive this and take it from beginning to end,” May said.

Alderman Glen Brown Jr. said he was concerned that the council was being asked to hand decision-making power over public money to a private group. He asked whether the city would have input on who would select the people who oversee implementation of those issues.

May said that when use of the public tax dollars was required, the corporation would make requests to the City Council, which could approve or deny them.

Brown said he felt like the city should have appointments on the board for decisions regarding public tax dollars.

May said the plan had been developed over a period of a year, and that 100 residents of Pine Bluff had participated. The taxes were imperative to raise enough funds to remove blight, he said, and he said it was important to set deadlines to achieve the goals set by the task force. Adding more oversight would make moving quickly difficult.

“If we’re going to do that, somewhere it’s got to have trust,” May said. “Either you trust us, or you don’t. We’re trusting you to spend the money.”

Alderman Bruce Lockett said he would like to have more input in order to represent his constituents. Brown said he would like for there to have been more collaboration between the task force and the council.

“I understand there’s a plan, but it seems like the plan should have been brought to the council and the city, before it got to this form,” Brown said.

Former Pine Bluff Alderman Irene Holcomb said she had seen several attempts at remaking the city, and that no plan was perfect. But she asked the council members, if they did not approve the plan whether they had an alternative.

Quoting a vintage television commercial, she said, “Where’s the beef?”

Mayor Shirley Washington said there would be time over the next month and a half for the council to make suggestions and changes to the proposed legislation before making a final vote on it.

Aldermen Bill Brumett, Win Trafford and Donald Hatchett sponsored the legislation. The measures require four out of seven city council votes for a citywide vote on the tax to be held.