Although Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington on Friday signed legislation approved by the city council to use more than $2 million from tax receipts from the Go Forward Sales Tax for other purposes, she said she did so with the intention to alter the legislation later.
“In a lengthy signing statement sent to The Commercial after deadline Friday, Washington said “As written, the action passed Oct. 7th demonstrates a willingness to break promises and it lacks a basic understanding of the process and interdependence of the various methods the city is using to improve our community.”
The resolution was sponsored by Council Member Ivan Whitfield and called for allocating $300,000 to the police department and $200,000 to the fire department to purchase equipment, $1 million for drainage, $300,000 for youth/community resources and $300,000 for the convention center.
In addition to Whitfield, who is a candidate for Mayor in the 2020 primary election, Council member Steven Mays, who is also a candidate for Mayor, and Council members Lloyd Holcomb Jr., Bruce Lockett and Donald Hatchett voted for the resolution. The terms of all three of those council members are up in 2020 and so far, only Holcomb has announced his intention to seek another term.
Voting no was Council member Win Trafford, whose term also expires in 2020 and has said he will run for reelection, and Council members Glen Brown Jr., and Joni Alexander. The terms of those two will not expire until 2022.
In her signing statement, the Mayor said that “at the core of public service is honoring the stewardship entrusted to us by the people as city leaders. We must keep promises to the people, and nothing is more sacred than our word.”
She said that it June 2017, 70 percent of Pine Bluff voters approved a new sales tax and were told that the tax would generate an estimated $32 million over seven years, “In collaboration with the city, Go Forward Pine Bluff (GFPB) was authorized by the public to invest those funds into 26 initiatives related to education, economic development, government,/infrastructure and quality of life. Together, the funding and plan would improve the overall condition of the city.”
“At the heart of the 2017 proposal was a promise, one some elected officials are now attempting to break,” Washington said. “I do not take their actions lightly. Citizens should be mindful of rhetoric and any attempt to weaken the progress made over the last two years.”
She went on to say that he vote of five council members to approve the resolution “blatantly contradicts the promise to spend those funds on the 26 initiatives. Further, it hinders the ability of GFPB to complete several projects and initiatives for which it has already planned.”
While the resolution said withdrawing the funds would allow the city to finance other items in the budget, Washington said that in conjunction with various employee and community leaders working with her office, she has identified alternate means to provide that funding.
“Unlike the rsolut9jn advanced by the city council, my proposal does not extract money from GFPB projects,” Washington said. “It upholds the promise made to the people.”
The Mayor then zeroes in on each of the areas who would receive funding under the resolution, starting with public safety. She said that both the police and fire departments had submitted lists of supplies and resources they needed but salaries for first-responders was the top priority.
“For years Pine Bluff has struggled to compete with neighboring cities in recruiting and retaining talented safety personnel,” Washington said. “The resolution does not include a plan to raise salaries adequately. To address this, I will propose a salary increase in the 2020 budget.’
She went on to say that she has been working with GFPB on other incentives, including a homeowners program that covers down payment and closing cost assistance to first responders that commit to serving in Pine Bluff for five years.
On the subject of youth and community resources, Washington said her office is “acting aggressively to construct new recreational facilities, upgrade community parks and renovate existing youth centers. She mentioned the opening of the multi-million dollar state-of-the-art aquatic center in June, which was made possible due to public funding, including $4 million from GFPB sales tax and donations from community partners. The city recently received an $800,000 Youth Engagement and Sports Grant to fund programs at the aquatic center. Also, the Merrill Center is in the final planning stages for a $700,000 renovation expected to begin this year, and the city is in the process of securing a grant from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism to build a new pavilion in Townsend Park.
“Extracting money from GFPB to address these needs is irresponsible when the city is currently working on these matters,” Washington said.
In reference to the convention center, Washington said allocating $300,000 is another duplication of efforts as the sales tax has already funded nearly $1 million in renovations to the building, and the $300,000 allocation does not take into account the efforts by the Urban Renewal Agency, (which is a produce of GFPB) to acquire the Plaza Hotel.
“We stand much to gain through the establishment of a hotel and convention center complex,” Washington said. “The approved resolution is a threat to such an economic game changer for the city of Pine Bluff.”
Finally, the resolution calls or the allocation of $1 million for drainage improvements and Washington said that has been a top priority for her since she took office. She said she, along with economic and community development are working with Civil Engineering Associates, LLC, to perform a comprehensive assessment of the city’s drains, including the Harding Drain, “one of the largest and most complex in the city. This will identify the areas in need of improvement and provide the most effective strategy to mediate those problems.”
Washington went on to say that she does not believe that the council members who voted to approve the resolution have identified a viable solution. “We cannot fix one set of problems by modifying and adjusting strategies and resources that are working to move our city forward. GFPB should be allowed to complete the projects for which it has planned.”
Finally, Washington said she looked forward to the passage of further legislation, “Which will remedy this disregard for promises to the public. As past behavior is often a predictor of future performance, the willingness of some to blatantly break promises to our citizens is something alarming.”