A divided Pine Bluff City Council on Monday voted 5-3 to appropriate more than $2 million collected from the so-called Go Forward Sales Tax to city services and departments.
Sponsored by Council Member Ivan Whitfield, the proposed resolution called for using $2.1 million “to meet the critical needs of various city city departments and entities for the betterment of the city.”
Supporting the proposal in addition to Whitfield were council members Steven Mays, Lloyd Holcomb Jr., Donald Hatchett and Bruce Lockett while council members Glen Brown Jr., Win Trafford and Joni Alexander voted no.
In explaining the proposal, Whitfield said that in 2018, before he became a member of the council, a budget of just over $4 million was adopted using the tax money and based on plans outlined by the Go Forward campaign.
“You can’t do business like that,” said Whitfield, who before he retired was the Pine Bluff Police Chief, going on to say that public safety needs to be the top priority for the city. Under Whitfield’s proposal, the police department would receive $300,000 and the fire department $200,000 to spend on equipment such as police cars and replacing AED’s (automatic external defibrillators.
Another $1 million would be devoted to drainage issues, $30,000 to what Whitfield called youth/community resources and $300,000 for the convention center.
“We need to invest in our community the right way,” Whitfield said.
Opposing the measure, Alexander said she wised the council had had more time to put together a plan that would have been acceptable to all its members. She said that the Convention Center already receives more than $1 million a year and the city’s Code Enforcement Department, which among other things is working to deal with blight is not even mentioned in the proposal.
A second proposal which attracted a lot of debate Monday was a resolution accepting the donation of the old Bank of America property at 120 W. 5th Ave., to the city. It was adopted by a 5-3 vote
Sponsored by Mayor Shirley Washington, the resolution said the building is valued at approximately $5 million and has the potential to be “re-purposed for a multitude of projects which would benefit the city.”
The annual maintenance costs for the building was projected at $70,000 should be a line item in the 2020 budget while any maintenance costs for the remainder of the year would come from general funds.
Whitfield, Hatchett and Lockett all opposed the donation, with Hatchett being the most vocal about it. He said that among other things, the city has not identified a use for the building.
“Not all gifts are gifts,” he said, going on to say that the air conditioning system in the building does not work properly, and that if the city acquires the building , the Pine Bluff School District would “lose thousands and thousands of dollars.”
He went on to say that “there’s no need for the taxpayers to take on the operating costs of an empty building.
First Alexander and then Holcomb defended the idea of acquiring the building, mentioning the Plaza Hotel and the Pines Mall as two examples of property owners not being held responsible for the upkeep of their property.
“We’re not buying the building, we’re being given the building,” Holcomb said. “Stop looking at what you see now and look at what you can get in five or 10 years. “Look at the hotel across the street and the Pines Mall. When people from out of town come here I don’t want them to go to the mall and people who come for homecoming are having to stay in Little Rock.”
Voting yes with Alexander and Holcomb were Mays, Brown Jr., and Trafford.