Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington on Monday cast the deciding votes an an ordinance that repealed an attempt to divert money from the Go Forward sales tax to purposes other than what they were intended.
Washington first cast votes to suspend the rules and move the proposed ordinance, which also sets out an administrative procedure to evaluate proposed projects seeking the tax money to a second and then third reading, then cast the sixth vote to adopt it.
The ordinance revokes a resolution sponsored by Council Member Ivan Whitfield which was approved by a 5-3 vote on Oct. 7 that proposed dividing up $2.1 million of the projected $4.2 million generated by the sales tax between the police and fire departments, drainage, youth/community and the convention center. In addition to Whitfield, Council members Steven Mays, Bruce Lockett, Lloyd Holcomb Jr., and Donald Hatchett voted yes while council members Glen Brown Jr., Win Trafford and Joni Alexander voted no.
On Monday, Holcomb and Hatchett joined Brown Jr., Trafford and Alexander in casting yes votes for the ordinance while Whitfield, Mays and Lockett said no.
Whitfield and Mays were the most vocal in their opposition to the ordinance with Whitfield saying that when voters went to the polls in 2017 to approve the tax increase, there was nothing on the ballot about Go Forward Pine Bluff, or about Urban Renewal, He said the ballot title simply said a general sales and use tax. Whitfield also said that in 2011, when voters approved what was called the Penny for Progress tax sponsored by former Mayor Carl Redus, the projects the tax would fund were spelled out.
He also described the tax as “a poll tax. The powerful want to control the weak so they can get what they want. This is a poll tax.”
Whitfield went on to say that supporters of the tax say that it was supported by 70 percent of the voters but only 13 percent of the registered voters in the city cast ballots in that election.”
He was also critical of the process outlined in the proposal for evaluating projects seeking money from the tax, saying that “we have to go before another committee just to get our own tax money.”
In a signing statement and in the ordinance which was adopted, Washington said money from the temporary tax (it sunsets in now five years) “are reserved for the purposes and use described in the GFPB plan explained to the voters in the special election and relied upon in making their decision.”
Washington also said that the Whitfield resolution to give money to the police and fire departments would do nothing to increase their pay while she plans to use revenue collected from new businesses (casino) to pay for salary increases for all city employees. She said the proposed money for youth/community does not take into account $4 million in Go Forward money for the aquatic center and $650,000 in the budget for renovations to the Merrill Center and his proposed $1 million for drainage would not even be a start. The city is currently working with an engineering firm to do a comprehensive study of drainage problems.
Mays called the Go Forward Pine Bluff plan “false hope and a scam. It’s a smoke screen for the rich.”
He went on to complain that $15 million in economic development money is “tied up and going to White Hall.” Mays was talking about funds collected under the three-eights cent sales tax that was designated for economic development that was a part of the “Penny for Progress” sales tax in 2011. That three-eights cent tax came off the books after seven years and is no longer being collected.
There are still millions of dollars in the bank that were collected while the tax was in force but under state law, those funds can only be used under certain sets of conditions. Most recently, the Economic Development Corp., of Jefferson County, commonly called the Tax Board, approved funding for a Texas company that plans to locate at the Pine Bluff Arsenal and manufacture protective clothing or the military.