Watley discusses tax defeats

Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley speaks to supporters after the final voting tally from the special election of two Go Forward-sponsored tax measures was announced Tuesday at RJ's Sports Bar and Grill. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

The mood inside RJ's Sports Bar and Grill was, for the second time in six-plus months, somber from the time early and absentee votes were counted to the final count.

Despite a plethora of snacks and drinks and college basketball blaring on the big screen, supporters of both the five-eighths-cent and three-eighths-cent sales and use tax proposals sponsored by Go Forward Pine Bluff had no victory to celebrate Tuesday night in their election night headquarters.

The final but unofficial totals in the five-eighths-cent tax vote, which has been in effect since voters approved it in 2017, were:



The tax will sunset Sept. 30, 2024.

The final count in the three-eighths-cent tax vote, which would have been added to the active tax and benefited firefighters and police officers, was:


Against 1,763

Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley said he wouldn't do anything differently to change the outcome.

"I don't think we could have done anything. We don't second-guess a thing we did," he said. "We're proud of the work we put forth. It is unfortunate because we had a lot of good things going, a lot of great momentum and a lot of investments, and we'll have to have that conversation about what that looks like going forward."

The margins of defeat for both measures were much narrower in the May 9 election. As updates were reported at the Jefferson County Election Commission headquarters across the street, votes against the tax measures led wire to wire. That was not the case in May, when the "for" votes had a slight edge through early and absentee voting.

Despite the narrow defeat the first time, Mayor Shirley Washington successfully petitioned the Pine Bluff City Council over the summer to return the measures to the ballot.

"I just want to thank the voters who made their voices heard tonight," Washington said. "It's clear the people of Pine Bluff love our city. They love our city and I think they love our city deeply. They care about its future. We have to remember, even though the Go Forward tax initiative was not renewed, that Pine Bluff will keep making progress. We have to keep pushing to move our city forward. We've come too far, far too far to turn back now."

Washington said "in the coming days" she will share plans for a community planning process focused on unifying the city and making progress.

"No matter how we voted today, I look forward to working with everyone to build a Pine Bluff we all can be proud to call home," Washington said, adding she wants those for and against Go Forward at the discussion table.

"I think we have to plan very aggressively," Washington said. "I think we have to plan quickly. We'll hit the ground running soon as Thanksgiving is over. I think everybody needs to celebrate and take a deep breath, because everybody has pushed hard."

Go Forward's next mission, Watley said, is to try and deliver on ongoing projects such as the Sixth Avenue and Main Street Plaza, Flats on Sixth apartment complex and a go-kart track at the site of the old Admiral Benbow Inn.

Watley said it's not a matter of whether Go Forward is willing to work with other organizations on potential capital improvements, but a matter of having something he calls substantive on the table. He also surmised discussions with the Go Forward board about what happens with the public-private tax initiative will come in a matter of days.

Watley also defended Go Forward against accusations of lack of transparency in planning for projects, given that tax dollars are used to fund them.

Asked if more transparency would have helped Go Forward's cause, Watley said: "Absolutely not. We went through a downtown master plan. We went through a comprehensive plan. And we presented those to the public. And we followed those plans to the T about what we were doing downtown."

Also Tuesday, the annual election on the Watson Chapel School District millage rate, which increased from 34.1 to 39.8 after an August 2022 election revealed a more decisive outcome for those against it. The final totals were:



The vote does not negate the increase, which is used to help fund construction of a new high school scheduled to open in the spring of 2026, but is held on an annual basis as required by state law.

  photo  From left, Go Forward Pine Bluff board member Rosalind Mouser, director of marketing and public relations Olandera Dunn and office manager/human resources advisor Leigh Cockrum listen for updated vote totals through a vehicle radio outside RJ's Sports Bar and Grill on Tuesday. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)