A squabble between Mayor Shirley Washington and one of her challenges over money from the Go Forward sales tax is expected to be a major campaign issue next year.
A resolution sponsored by Council member Ivan Whitfield would have appropriated more than $2 million from the proceeds of the tax to city service and departments and was adopted during a meeting of the council on Oct. 7.
Early in the year, Whitfield announced he would be a candidate for Mayor of Pine Bluff in the March 2020 Democratic primary.
Whitfield, who before he was elected to the council in 2018 was Pine Bluff Police Chief, said that public safety needed to be a top priority. His resolution called for giving the Police Department $300,000 and the Fire Department $200,000 to spend on things like police cars and AED’s (automatic external defibrillators).
Another $1 million would go to drainage issues, $300,000 to the convention center and $300,000 to what Whitfield called youth/community resources.
That resolution was adopted by a vote of 5-3 with Council members Steven Mays, Bruce Lockett, Donald Hatchett and Lloyd Holcomb Jr. joining Whitfield in voting yes. Voting no were Council members Glen Brown Jr., Win Trafford and Joni Alexander.
The following week, Mayor Shirley Washington signed the legislation but in a lengthy statement, said she did so with the intention of altering it later. In that statement, Washington said the resolution “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.”
She went on to say that in 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 in 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 of the last two years.”
A week after the Mayor signed the legislation, she cast the deciding vote to repeal the resolution and replace it with an ordinance that among other things outlined an administrative procedure for evaluating proposed projects seeking funding from the tax proceeds.
Washington first cast votes to suspend the rules and read the ordinance a second and third time, then cast the sixth vote to adopt it.
Like the first time when the Whitfield sponsored resolution was adopted, the vote was 5-3 and while that is sufficient to adopt a resolution, six votes are needed to adopt an ordinance so Washington joined Council members Alexander, Brown Jr., Hatchett, Holcomb Jr. and Trafford i a yes vote. No votes were cast by Whitfield, Mays and Lockett.
Before the vote, Whitfield argued that when voters went to the polls in 2017, there was nothing on the ballot about Go Forward Pine Bluff or about Urban Renewal. He said the ballot title simply called for a general sales and use tax. He went on to say tat supporters of the tax say that it was supported by 70 percent of the voters but only 13 percent of the registered votes in the city ballots.
Mays, who is also a candidate for Mayor said the Go Forward Pine Bluff plan is a “false hope and a scam.It’s a smoke screen for the rich.”
In a signing statement and in the ordinance which was adopted, Washington said money from the temporary tax (it sunsets now in 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.”
She also said that the Whitfield resolution to give money to the police and fire departments would do nothing to increase their pay while she planned to use revenue collected from new businesses (casino) to cover salary increases for all city employees. The 202 city budget approved by the council earlier this month calls for a five-percent raise for police and firefighters and a three-percent increase for other city employees.