A series of resolutions dealing with the Go Forward Pine Bluff five-eighths cent sales tax approved by Pine Bluff voters in June 2017, including one that would have removed the more than $4 million budgeted for projects from GFPB, all failed by 4-3 votes Monday night during a meeting of the Pine Bluff City Council before an overflow crowd in council chambers.
Alderwoman Thelma Walker, Alderman Steven Mays and Alderman Bruce Lockett supported all of the proposals, while aldermen Bill Brumett, Glen Brown Jr., Lloyd Holcomb and Win Trafford voted no.
The 2018 city budget book contains three pages designated for projects proposed by the Go Forward initiative. The book was approved by the council on Dec. 4. Any money spent from these tax funds must first be approved by the City Council, as has been the case since the initiative was passed, according to GFPB.
Walker contended that the funds from the tax were “hidden” because they were at the back of the budget book, which totals about 150 pages. City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott told the council that it is incumbent on them to review the budget book, and “if you have questions, take it to the Ways and Means Committee.”
In defending her proposal to remove the money, Walker said, “We have children in the city summer programs that don't have a budget but we're going to put money into programs that we don't know anything about.”
Under her proposed resolution, the City Council would “Individually vet each project to determine whether it chooses to approve future allocations.”
Walker also said she believed Pine Bluff voters did not know what they were voting for when they approved the tax increase, which was spearheaded by the Go Forward Pine Bluff organization, particularly mentioning concerts and festivals.
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington quickly corrected Walker, saying that “tax papers knew very well what they were voting for,” adding that Go Forward held a series of public meetings to explain each facet of the plan.
“The tax payers were well informed and to do anything else would be disrespectful to the tax payers,” Washington said.
Walker laid much of the blame on Finance Director Steve Miller, who prepared the budget book.
She said that under former mayors Carl Redus Jr. and Debe Hollingsworth, “you would not have done this.”
Miller pointed out that Walker was a member of the Council's Planning and Development Committee where the various items in that budget were discussed.
“I didn't treat this one any differently,” Miller said.
Lockett had previously complained about $12,000 being spent from the budget's festivals account to promote an event at the Southeast Arkansas Arts and Science Center that he was unaware of.
“When you passed the budget, you also appropriated money for purposes that had already been approved,” Assistant City Attorney Joe Childers said. “You shouldn't have passed the budget if you wanted a line by line, item by item, project by project breakdown.”
Among Lockett's other proposals was a resolution calling for a public hearing on all budget requests for the tax money.
“I've got a real problem,” Lockett said. “My problem is $4 million being appropriated without the full council being informed.”
“Budget hearings were held and all the council members were informed,” Childers said.
Another Lockett proposal would have established an oversight committee, which he said would provide “transparency and accountability for the tax dollars. This is doing nothing but showing transparency.”
Before the meeting, a series of speakers, nearly all opposing the resolutions, were heard, including Eric Walden, who spoke specifically about the oversight committee proposal.
He said he is a member of a review committee that meets with city officials on a regular basis to discuss proposals for the Go Forward funds.
“That did not pass this council,” Lockett argued. “You can't create legislation.”
“This was a part of Go Forward from day one,” Washington said. “The committee reviews recommendations before they go to the council. This is not new.”
Another speaker, Will Jenkins, who, with his wife, opened a salon and boutique downtown Friday, said he made a sizable investment in the downtown area, and when the tax passed, he decided to invest some more.
“The citizens voted to approve the tax funding, and these resolutions would make it more difficult to get anything done,” he said.
Another resolution, which would have approved funding for certain festivals and events from the tax money, was tabled by its sponsor. Former Alderman Jack Foster spoke against that proposal, saying that the money should be given to the Advertising and Promotion Commission.
“The city is putting all the money in,” Foster said. “I don't know if Go Forward is putting in a dime. Give it to A&P. That way, anybody can apply.”