The Pine Bluff City Council on Monday will consider resolutions to spend $400,000 on renovations to the Merrill Community Center and to activate a dormant urban renewal agency.
The council meets at 5:30 p.m. at Pine Bluff City Hall.
In addition, the council will also consider Alderman Win Trafford's request to rezone property for a potential bed-and-breakfast on Cherry Street, and an ordinance merging oversight of an old police pension plan with the department's current plan. Other items include resolutions to spend $30,000 in matching grant funds for the development of the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Cultural and Entertainment District and another authorizing an agreement to accept a $37,000 grant to plant four community gardens, one in each ward of the city.
Several residents have recently urged the council to upgrade the Merrill Center, which serves hundreds of kids daily during the summer and hosts afternoon activities during the school year. The resolution would appropriate $400,000 from the city's 2011 five-eighths cent sales and use tax reserve to repair the center.
The resolution to re-activate the dormant urban renewal agency would empower the mayor to appoint five board members to the agency, who will identify a list of blighted areas of the city in need of rehabilitation, conservation and redevelopment. The agency will then develop a priority list, submit the list to the mayor and council for approval of an urban renewal plan for each area. The agency would eventually be funded by either private or public money from the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative.
An urban renewal agency is a public entity created to transform blighted urban areas into productive property. Such agencies typically possess powers including eminent domain and the ability to take out bonds. The agencies began to be used widely in the U.S. after World War II proceeding through the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. In some cities the agencies drew criticism for discriminatory results toward people of color.
Pine Bluff created an urban renewal agency in 1961 and dissolved it roughly a decade later. A bill passed in the 2017 Arkansas Legislative Session and co-sponsored by State Representatives Vivian Flowers and Kenneth Ferguson of Pine Bluff enabled urban renewal agencies to be revived. Flowers said Simmons First Foundation Chairman Tommy May and Mayor Shirley Washington had approached her and Ferguson about the legislation with the idea that urban renewal could be used at part of the Go Forward Pine Bluff plan. The lead sponsor of the bill was Rep. Matthew Shepherd of El Dorado, which is undertaking a public-private economic development model that GFPB was modeled on.
Another ordinance would rezone 2.5 acres at 4001 S. Cherry Street from R-1 residential to R-B, residential-commercial in order to operate a bed-and-breakfast. The address is the site of the Greystone residence, a historic house recently purchased by Trafford, a realtor who owns many properties across the city, and Highland Pellets CEO Tom Reilley.
The re-zoning request drew opposition from neighboring homeowners when it came before the planning commission last month. Some feared a bed-and-breakfast could lead to increased traffic in the neighborhood and decreased home values. Others suggested there was a racial double standard after the commission in 2014 rejected a request by an African-American woman to re-open the Eden Park Country Club. Keidra Burrell, the chief assistant to Mayor Shirley Washington, was among the neighboring homeowners who criticized the bed-and-breakfast proposal. The commission approved the re-zoning 5-1.
Larry Reynolds, director of the Southeast Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, said the proposed bed-and-breakfast would have a “totally different intensity of use” from the old Eden Park proposal. He said there was no evidence for the claim that property values would decrease.
The council will hear a first reading of an ordinance transferring administration of a pension investment plan for police officers who retired prior to 1983. Officers who retired after 1983 receive retirement benefits paid through the state-wide Arkansas Local Police and Retirement System (LOPFI). There are 71 enrollees in the pre-1983 police pension plan, including spouses of officers and one adult son. City Finance Director Steve Miller in a meeting last week said transferring the administration of the plan would cost the city more in annual pension contributions over the short-term but likely save money on the back end of the plan.
The council will also consider several resolutions. One resolution would authorize the mayor to execute a memorandum of understanding with the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees for cultivation of four community gardens. The city will receive a $37,000 grant and plant a community garden in each ward.
Another resolution would monitor expenditures from tax revenue collected through the recently passed Go Forward Pine Bluff five-eighths cent sales tax. A third resolution would commit the city to spend $30,000 in matching grant funds over two years for the development of the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Cultural and Entertainment District.
Finally, the council will consider a resolution to support federal and state legislation to ensure the proper assessment and collection of sales tax from all online and Internet sales.
The council will also hear the first reading of an ordinance to update the city's guidelines for purchases.
Resolutions may be passed at the same meeting at which they are introduced, but the council is required by law to hear a reading of proposed ordinances at three separate public meetings in order to give the public proper notice of proposed legislation. The council has followed that practice sporadically in 2017, often suspending rules to read legislation three times in a given meeting and passing it on the same night.
The council will also consider resolutions to appoint Robert J. Thompson to the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Library Board of Trustees and Tyrantetta Tyler-Johnson to the Pine Bluff Civic Auditorium Complex Commission. It will consider resolutions to reappoint David Wilbert, Floretta Perry Scott and Leon Crumblin to the Pine Bluff Planning Commission.