Despite issues with vote counting, the Go Forward Pine Bluff sales tax initiative was approved by voters on Tuesday.
As of 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, 3,831 votes for the initiative had been counted, compared to 1,708 against.
Jefferson County Election Commisioner Stu Soffer said that "we know we have a 40-50 vote disparity. It does not affect the outcome of the election. Tomorrow we’re going to bring in an erm operator, and we’re going to run the electronics completely, and we’re also going to do it with an auditor."
Soffer said he manually added up the votes.
"There’s no doubt that the issue passed by almost 2,000 votes more," he said.
Unofficial results announced at 7:30 p.m. had votes for the economic improvement tax leading by roughly 1,800 votes to approximately 750 against. But Soffer said election auditors had been counting the votes wrong, and would have to go back and start again.
The chaotic turn of events appeared to be the fruit of a long-festering territorial dispute between the majority-Republican Jefferson County Election Commission and Jefferson County Judge Hank Wilkins, a Democrat.
Election commissioners Soffer and Mike Adam rejected Wilkins’ pick for election coordinator, Will Fox, amid a series of disputes that also involved pay. As a result, Soffer and Adam oversaw the election themselves. Fox was present at the election commission headquarters Tuesday night, but he did not work with Soffer or Adam.
“I’m alright with it,” Adam said a little after 9 p.m. “We have someone, if we need to, on the other end of the phone who’s an expert with the [voting] software.”
Soffer told assembled media that election auditors would count the votes manually on Tuesday night, then count them electronically Wednesday morning.
Driven by Simmons First Foundation Chairman Tommy May, the 100-member Go Forward Pine Bluff task force first met in January 2016. Over the next year, the task force assembled a plan to tackle problems that have contributed to Pine Bluff’s decline over several decades.
The result, unveiled by May in January 2017, was a 27-point plan that called for improvements in infrastructure, economic development and education, among other priorities. The plan was to be funded by roughly $20 million in private donations and grants, along with a new five-eighths cent sales tax. Supporters projected the tax to cost each Pine Bluff household $15 per month, and raise about $4 million per year over seven years.
A lively party took place Tuesday night over at the Go Forward Pine Bluff headquarters at 204 Main Street, about a block away from the Jefferson County Courthouse. Supporters visited with one another with R&B music in the background, and grilled out.
Supporters of the tax called it an imperfect but necessary measure needed to jump-start Pine Bluff out of its economic doldrums and to stop a loss of population.
The tax drew opposition from several city council members and a loosely organized coalition calling themselves “A Better Way Forward.” The campaign slogan for the group was “table the tax” to bring the planners back to the table to modify it.
Opponents said the plan would disproportionately hurt Pine Bluff’s poor while doing little to help them, given the plan’s emphasis on creating a vibrant downtown district. Others said they did not trust a non-profit organization to responsibly use public funds, especially given the history of past taxes to fund a yet-to-be-built splash pad, aquatic center and multi-purpose center.