The Pine Bluff City Council Administration Committee recommended Tuesday removing a proposed Youth Services Department from further consideration, citing opposition from community members and a desire to wait for Mayor-elect Shirley Washington to take office.
Joni Alexander, assistant to Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, proposed creating the department in March 2016 to provide students with year-round extra-curricular activities, service projects, clothing drives, talent shows, a battle of the bands, partnerships with police officers and other services.
She is asking for the council to implement her idea to help a total of 1,200 students from grades two to 12.
The Pine Bluff municipal budget already allocates $150,000 toward youth programs, and Alexander is requesting an extra $50,000 to kick-start her project. The full City Council is scheduled to vote on creating the program on Monday, Oct. 3.
The program would employ one full-time director and two part-time positions and provide services for 12 months. Washington will succeed Hollingsworth on Jan. 1, 2017.
The current summer youth program employs 120 young people for a period of six weeks.
Alexander noted Pine Bluff is home to more than 17,360 children from birth to age 18.
Alderman George Stepps said he has heard from people who both oppose and support this program. Stepps said other people oppose creating another department.
“There are concerns that several ministers and leaders have concerning this program — but not against the proposal,” Stepps said. “One of the biggest things is that the people do not want to kill the [existing] youth program for the summer jobs.”
Stepps asked where the program will be housed. Alexander responded in the Joe Thomas Public Safety Center and at a church. Stepps questioned how children will be transported. Alexander said the Pine Bluff Transit employees will drive the children.
Stepps suggested the program exist as part of the Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Department. Pine Bluff has about 453 churches, and Stepps proposed asking each church to donate $1,000 per year toward this proposed program.
“I am not going to ask these churches to do something I am not willing to do,” Stepps said. “I will contribute $100 per month toward this program.”
“Anytime there is a chance for youth to be employed, there is a plus for the city and the youth,” Stepps said.
Alderman Glen Brown Jr. reiterated waiting until Washington take office.
“I do not think you will find anyone from Parks and Recreation who supports this program,” he said.
Alderwoman Thelma Walker asked Alexander about the prospect of her leaving employment with the city of Pine Bluff. Alexander responded that any employee could leave any employer at any time for whatever reason.
After the meeting, Alexander noted she has worked for more than six months to generate this proposal. Asked her thoughts on the administration committee’s attitudes toward her ideas, she responded:
“I feel like these are the people the citizens voted in to make decisions on their behalf and they made their decision,” Alexander said. “But I am still going to work hard to provide programs for our youth: that is my passion.”
At an earlier meeting on the same purpose, Alexander provided the three aldermen with letters from Arkansas Rep. Kenneth Ferguson, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Chancellor Laurence Alexander, Southeast Arkansas College President Stephen Hilterbran, Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Michael Robinson, Dollarway School District Superintendent Barbara Warren, the Rev. Johnny Smith Jr. of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and City of Pine Bluff human resources director Vickie Conaway, all of whom pledged their support for the Youth Engagement and Services Department.
In other business, City of Pine Bluff information technology director Wes O’Donohue III asked the aldermen to allocate $12,500 toward software development and another $12,500 to add to his salary. O’Donohue made this request and said he has implemented software that has saved taxpayers at least $48,000 on software that tracks employees’ time and attendance.
“I am asking for a salary increase to support software development,” O’Donohue said. “This is not replaceable by another [person] who they [might] hire behind me. The next IT director will not be able to do this.”
O’Donohue said he has been writing software programs for more than 20 years. He said he is currently earning $59,000 per year.
Stepps voted to send O’Donohue’s request to the full council with his blessing.
Glen Brown Sr. objected to considering O’Donohue’s request, voting against recommending it to the full council. He told O’Donohue that he does not have a personal vendetta against him, yet that a Pine Bluff municipal employee can find another job if he or she wants to earn more money. Walker agreed with Glen Brown Sr.