Pine Bluff Finance Director Steve Miller was blunt Tuesday when he addressed the City Council’s Ways and Means Committee. “We need money from everywhere,” he told Mayor Debe Hollingsworth and some aldermen in attendance.
Once the state’s second- but now its 10th-largest city, Pine Bluff has endured probably more than its share of bad publicity over the past 25 years, including a one-time ranking as the country’s least-desirable city in which to live, and numerous dubious recognitions for its crime statistics.
We have even topped some past national charts over the years in the number of murders and automobile thefts.
The U.S. Census Bureau measured Pine Bluff’s estimated 1.5-percent population slide as the country’s biggest loss during a 12-month period that ended on July 1, 2012. During the two decades from 1990 to 2010 the population count fell roughly 14 percent, from 57,100 to 49,083.
With the title as the nation’s fastest shrinking city, Pine Bluff’s troubles have climbed as its decline has picked up speed.
With a 2013 municipal revenue shortfall projected at between $391,000 and $692,000, a number of options are being considered to help stop the hemorrhaging. None will be pain-free. Doing nothing would just dig our hole a bit deeper.
We all are aware of our vexatious image problem, compounded by declining enrollment in our public schools, housing problems, arson and poverty, the latter earning us a ranking amid the country’s 10 most impoverished cities.
Unemployment is high. The February rate was 11.8 percent, the highest in the state, which had a 7.2 percent average. The city and Jefferson County have had little luck in attracting new industries and businesses in the lean economy.
Lack of depth on the public leadership bench and instances of political corruption have only compounded our problems over the years.
We reached this position over decades with both white and black leadership. Skin pigmentation was not a factor in digging that hole.
As Hollingsworth observed, “there’s a lot more that’s good about Pine Bluff than there is bad.” That’s the foundation we must rebuild on.
Municipal and county sales tax revenues that pay for so many municipal services have fallen with declining population and retail business in the past four years.
The anticipated revenue decline this year represents a 1.4-percent slump from 2012, while the city’s 2013 budget reflects a 2.5-percent hike over 2012.
The financial crisis could have been avoided if the city’s recent budgets had reflected the falling revenue instead of unrealistic spending increases. Unlike Washington, Pine Bluff can’t print money.
Senior Alderman Bill Brumett recommended at least $500,000 be trimmed from the current budget of roughly $27 million. Hollingsworth said city department heads should consider steps that would trim their divisions’ expenses by at least 2 percent. Suggestions must be readied for discussion in a second committee meeting scheduled for May 7.
A hiring freeze, employee furloughs, consolidating departmental expenses, reducing funding for street overlay and maintenance work by $100,000, trimming the contribution to the city’s emergency reserve by $150,000 and a one-time reduction of $1.35 million in reserves from the five-eighths cent city sales tax approved by voters in 2011 and earmarked for assorted improvements are on the table.
Cooperation among elected officials and understanding of the public is the only way we can reach a point to begin moving forward, not backward.