Editor’s Note: This is the number one news story of 2017, as voted by the Commercial staff.
On June 13, Pine Bluff voters bought into one of the biggest revitalization plans in the city’s history — Go Forward Pine Bluff. The five-eighths cent sales tax passed with nearly 70 percent of voters in favor. The tax began collections on Oct. 1, with the money becoming available to spend on projects on Jan. 1.
The first quarterly receipt from the Go Forward tax will be $1.1 million with approximate monthly receipts of $365,000, totaling $4.4 million annually, according to GFPB. A new city fund and bank account will be established for GFPB sales tax receipts, and appropriation of those funds will be requested by GFPB leadership and approved by the City Council for each initiative. Donations through the GFPB corporation are more difficult to project.
However, GFPB expects to receive approximately $1 million per year.
“We again thank the citizens of Pine Bluff for supporting the sales tax increase that will fund the 27 initiatives of the Go Forward Pine Bluff Plan. Your vote solidified the public-private partnership with the City of Pine Bluff and the necessary development of GFPB,” GFPB CEO Ryan Watley said.
Tommy May, former CEO of Simmons Bank and chairman of the Simmons Foundation, which spearheaded the GFPB project with a $300,000 feasibility study, called the plan “our city’s last chance” at revitalization.
Population decline, crime, poverty and joblessness have plagued the city for decades, and community leaders such as May wanted to do something to help turn things around, he said. The GFPB plan consists of 27 separate goals, including revitalizing downtown and improving the city’s education system.
The plan isn’t without its critics, though.
Michael McCray, a spokesman for a group of opponents to the measure organized around the theme “A Better Way Forward,” criticized the Go Forward Pine Bluff task force for creating the plan in private meetings and for requiring participants to sign non-disclosure agreements. McCray also contended that the plan lacked detailed budgets and timelines for projects, which he believes could lead to administrative bloat and outsized consultants’ fees. With the GFPB non-profit corporation placed in the role of executing the plan, opponents also argue there is not enough accountability to taxpayers.
Just a couple months ago, GFPB announced its board members, who will all play a part in recommendations that are sent to the City Council for funding.
Go Forward Board members are:
Earlean Collins, Retired Assistant Principal, Pine Bluff High School
Dr. Lawrence Davis Jr., Chancellor Emeritus, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
Dr. Connie Hathorn, Superintendent, Watson Chapel School District
Dr. Sederick Rice, Assistant Professor of Biology, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
Drew Atkinson, Chief Financial Officer, Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel
Steven Brown, Senior Vice President, Relyance Bank
Brian Thomas, Chief Executive Officer, Jefferson Regional Medical Center
Irene Holcomb, Former Alderwoman, Pine Bluff City Council
Reverend Jesse Turner, Chairman, Pine Bluff Faith Community Coalition Ministerial Alliance
Go Forward Pine Bluff Representatives
Rosalind Mouser, Assistant General Counsel and Senior Vice President, Simmons Bank
Eric Walden, Assistant Chief, Sixth Division Circuit Court
Mary Virginia Makris, Physicians Recruiter, Jefferson Regional Medical Center
Tommy May, Chairman of Simmons Foundation, GFPB Chairman of the Board
Mary Pringos, Agriculture Community, GFPB Vice Chairman
Dr. Carla Martin, Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, GFPB Assistant Vice Chairman
Alexandra Kosmitis, Executive Project Manager, Simmons Bank, GFPB Secretary/Treasurer