There were fireworks a plenty at the Pine Bluff City Council meeting Monday night, but not from the expected source.
When the council agenda was distributed last week, three resolutions stood out, each dealing with the transfer of equipment and personnel from the Urban Renewal Agency to the city’s Code Enforcement Department, as well as a budget adjustment for more than $470,000 to cover the salaries of the workers, along with the estimated costs of property demolition for the rest of the year.
None of those items ever got out of the pre-meeting, as council members complained about the lack of job descriptions for the workers being on file. Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington made the decision to pull not only the three resolutions but also the budget adjustment until those job descriptions can be created and sent to the council's Administration Committee for review.
A majority of that committee previously recommended that similar resolutions dealing only with the transfer of manpower not be approved, but as Council Member Glen Brown Jr. said Monday night, committees do not have the final say in legislation.
The issue arose after a May opinion by City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott said that the Urban Renewal Agency could not tear down structures without “legally acquiring them through purchase, contract, eminent domain, donation by school district, donation by City of city property, etc.”
She said that while state law grants cities the authority to raze and remove structures, place liens against real property and collect those liens from the county tax collector, the Urban Renewal Agency is an autonomous body created by the city, with its own independent governing board, and therefore cannot act in the same capacity.
Her opinion also said the Code Enforcement Department, which is governed by the city, is legally allowed to perform those functions on behalf of the city.
The council has been hemming and hawing on the issue ever since.
In other business, the council debated a resolution sponsored by Council Member Ivan Whitfield that directed the Parks Department to provide free swimming lessons to all city residents 18 and younger.
At the pre-council meeting, the question of how to pay for the lessons came up, and Whitfield was asked to pull the resolution but refused to do so, saying he wanted it voted up or down and “maybe someone will come up with something I can support.”
Council Member Bruce Lockett offered a compromise, suggesting that instead of directing the Parks Department to provide the free lessons, direct them to research the idea. Lockett said that study could set up some of the basics that would be needed rather than the council approve what he called an “unfunded mandate.”
Whitfield said Washington and others have always said the Aquatics Center was built for the children, and public funds were used to pay for it. He said he opposed the compromise that Lockett suggested.
Washington said the city has been applying for grants to cover the costs of offering free swimming lessons to young people, including one for $400,000 a year for two years. She said that, currently, several residents have contributed money to pay the costs associated with teaching young people to swim.
“I feel like this is a bit presumptuous,” Washington said. “We don’t have the money in place.”
Brown supported Washington, saying that the city does not have the funds to do what Whitfield wants.
Whitfield responded by saying the free lessons ought to be mandated, comparing that to renovations that are planned for the Merrill Center. The center hosts dozens of kids each day and offers a menagerie of activities for them.
“When all is said and done, we’re not going to have enough money to do that,” Brown said of offering the swimming lessons for free.
Council Member Joni Alexander said there are approximately 17,000 people 18 or younger in Pine Bluff and argued that Lockett’s amendment changes the intent of Whitfield’s resolution.
“Why not allow (work to be done) on the grant,” Brown said. “If we don’t get it, we can explore the situation.”
“From the beginning, the grant money was designed to be used for swimming lessons and transportation,” Washington said. “It will go into the budget to pay for operations at the aquatic center.”
Lockett’s amendment failed, drawing only votes from him, Mays and Council Member Donald Hatchett.
Whitfield’s original resolution also failed by a vote of 4-4.