Jean Painton feels a monster is on the loose on Pine Bluff, threatening to devour the city. And Mayor Debe Hollingsworth is determined to help tame the beast by leading an aggressive response fortified by a unified municipal front.

Jean Painton feels a monster is on the loose on Pine Bluff, threatening to devour the city. And Mayor Debe Hollingsworth is determined to help tame the beast by leading an aggressive response fortified by a unified municipal front.

Thefts from and vandalism of unoccupied rent houses, apartments and commercial buildings are taking a toll on property owners and the city as a whole. Magnifying the problem are burglaries of occupied residences and businesses, and a team effort is being formulated to combat the woe.

The Pine Bluff Crime Advisory Commission and Hollingsworth met Thursday with officials of the fire, police and other city departments and some citizen groups to update one another on developments in a continuing and growing quest to turn around the city’s fortunes.

It may be an uphill battle.

“There are so many facets to this problem,” said Painton, who chairs the commission and also serves as president of the Jefferson County Landlords Association and is an advocate for tenants’ rights. “It’s not something that occurred overnight and it won’t be fixed overnight. It’s going to require everyone coming together and working in unison and dedicating themselves to staying on course until the problem is solved.

“I don’t want to see another family saying they can’t put up with the crime here and leaving Pine Bluff,” she continued. “We’re better than that. I refuse to believe that Pine Bluff can’t again be the type of town it used to be. And Mayor Hollingsworth feels the same way. She and I are both optimists.”

Painton, a Pine Bluff native who was born and raised here and then moved away for 30 years after graduating from high school in 1963, owns several rent houses here. Keeping them rented has become increasingly difficult because of crime and related issues, so much so that she said that she and many other landlords do well to simply “break even” on their expenses and income over a calendar year.

“It’s not like it was in 1963,” she said. “Fifty years ago here, we had nowhere near the crime we do today. We didn’t have the gang problems. I think our families were stronger. Our neighborhoods had more identity, more pride. I want safe neighborhoods here again. I’m sick of seeing bars on windows, and the bars can’t be more than four to six inches apart. I know that for a fact because I just had a house with bars 11 inches apart broken into the other day, people breaking out the windows and sliding inside between the bars.

“Then tenants want to move out because they no longer feel safe in that neighborhood, and if you board up the windows, you’re running a risk of someone committing an arson there. There are some slumlords here and we’re working with the mayor to get them out, but I can promise you that most landlords want to maintain quality properties that are not only safe, but attractive and renter-friendly. Like I said, it’s a multifaceted problem.”

“I appreciate Jean’s commitment to this cause,” said Hollingsworth. “It’s vital that the city does all it can to bring about the necessary changes. We want to bring new industries and businesses with higher-paying jobs to our city, which would also help us to regain the population we’ve lost in recent years. Perception is often reality, and we can’t grow and prosper like we should if we have people perceive us to be unsafe. We don’t want Pine Bluff to be seen as an undesirable place to live, work and raise a family.

“We have to be concerned about outside perceptions, but the best way for us to strengthen our city is by building on what we know are our true realities, one of which is there’s no other city that can beat Pine Bluff on its character and history. I’ll assure you that I’m as committed as Jean and I know our council members are every bit as dedicated as well. And our city employees have the collective heart and ability to help tackle any challenge and get the job done.”

Hollingsworth said Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks is working with others in his department on determining strategies, inclusive of crime trends that might shed some light on root concerns. “The more organized we are with facts, figures and other criteria, the smarter our plan can be on taking care of this problem,” said Hollingsworth. “We’ve got several departments working jointly on this. Like Jean said, this will take a team effort.” Hollingsworth and Hubanks are also looking at avenues on enhancing neighborhood watch groups.

The mayor maintains her belief that involving youth in city activities is a key to achieving meaningful change, a point she stressed in her campaign. “We may have some young people in trouble or causing trouble for others, but I know that most of our youth here are well-behaved, respectful and well-intentioned,” she said. “If they’re included in decision-making processes, they’re part of the cure and maybe fewer of them would be part of the problem. We also need to ensure that there are quality, wholesome activities for our youth. I agree with the philosophy that it takes an entire village to properly raise a child. We all have a responsibility to our youth, and that’s how they learn that they have a responsibility to their elders.”

But many and possibly the majority of property offenses here are committed by adults, either at their instruction or with their direct involvement. A number of the offenses seem to be professional efforts, done in a fast-paced style. Painton said one local landlord had 17 outside air-conditioning units stolen in a single day, while another experienced break-ins and thefts of copper wiring in 29 apartment units within a 24-hour period. “And while thieves will receive as little as $20 for copper wiring they may have stolen, landlords will be left with damages of $3,000 or more that have to be remedied before the property is rentable again,” said Painton. “And when insurance rates go up because of thefts, tenants have an increase in their rent, and none of that is good for anyone.”

More and more, Painton said, thieves are stealing water heaters, stoves and refrigerators that some landlords provide. “There may be some young hoodlums breaking windows and vandalizing and committing some threats,” she said. “But there’s often more involved with taking the wiring and appliances.”

“We want to stop whoever’s responsible,” said Hollingsworth. “I want to think we might help prevent some kids from getting caught up in this sort of activity. But whoever is caught committing such crimes, well, that’s what courts and jails are for.”