Pine Bluff voters consider whether to ‘go forward’ with sales tax
The debate about how to support economic growth and quality of life improvements in Pine Bluff will be put to a vote during a special election May 9 as residents consider two sales and use tax proposals totaling one cent.
One proposal would create a permanent three-eighth cent sales tax to benefit the city’s fire and police departments. The other would extend a five-eighth cent sales tax that funds Go Forward Pine Bluff’s initiatives for another seven years.
Pine Bluff-based Simmons Bank helped launch the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative in late 2015, and volunteers spent the following year developing a strategic plan to grow the community’s tax base.
In 2017, Go Forward Pine Bluff became a nonprofit, and voters approved a seven-year five-eighth cent sales tax. The group formed a public-private partnership with the city to ensure the funding was used to implement the strategic plan’s more than two dozen initiatives.
Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley said nearly all of those projects have been started or completed and he’s hopeful voters will support efforts to keep moving the city forward.
“Everyone can see that despite the progress we’ve made, we have a lot more work to do,” Watley said. “Absent the funds to do this work, we can’t continue making improvements that you want to see in Pine Bluff.”
The Arkansas State Conference and Pine Bluff branch of the NAACP both oppose the proposed taxes. Pine Bluff NAACP president Ivan Whitfield said sales taxes are a regressive tax that hurts low-income families. A former city council member and Pine Bluff police chief, Whitfield said “every penny counts” with inflation driving up the cost of things like food.
Families are also bracing for other rate hikes in the city, he said. Liberty Utilities filed a request with the Arkansas Public Service Commission to adjust its water base rate. If approved, customers can expect an average increase of $4.15 per month in 2023 and $3.25 per month in 2024, according to the utility company.
The Pine Bluff School District is also planning a high school construction project, and an increase to one or both of the district’s millages likely will be needed to fund the project.
Whitfield said these are priorities while the proposed taxes on next week’s ballot are examples of a “privilege tax.”
“It’s going to hurt the low- to moderate-income [families] too much for us not to take a stance on it,” Whitfield said.
Nearly a quarter of the city’s population is living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census.
The city is also facing a population decline. In 2021, the New York Times reported Pine Bluff was the fastest-shrinking metropolitan area in America when Census data revealed the metro saw a 12.5% decline between 2010 and 2020.
While Simmons Bank served as a catalyst to grow Pine Bluff’s tax base in 2015, Whitfield argued the local business should have been investing in the community all along, much like what the owners of Walmart and Murphy Oil have done in Bentonville and El Dorado, respectively.
“They have come to produce this brand to say they want to help us bounce back, but they have allowed this community to hit rock bottom because they failed to invest,” Whitfield said. “But yet they want to use the tax dollars now to reinvest back in Pine Bluff to do things they should have done 30 years ago. That’s a problem.”
During a recent press conference, Mayor Shirley Washington said the proposed public safety tax is needed to increase salaries for first responders so Pine Bluff can remain competitive with other cities.
“We will be able to retain, we’ll be able to attract the best and brightest to our departments,” she said. “We will improve public safety facilities.”
Despite the mayor’s comments, Whitfield said he doesn’t like that the ballot title doesn’t specifically state how the funds will be used.
Watley argued it’s important not to limit the police and fire departments to the needs of today when those could be different in the future. The flexibility to address changing needs such as salaries or facilities will help increase morale and improve working conditions, he said.
“We can uplift the first responder force in Pine Bluff, which again will help us combat the moniker of ‘Crime Bluff’ and ensure that businesses know that we have a bonafide first responder force to protect their business interest,” Watley said.
Pine Bluff has fewer violent crimes than Little Rock or Fort Smith, but its violent crime rate of 1,098 per 100,000 residents ranks it fourth in the nation, according to a 24/7 Wall St. report.
Watley said the initial goal of Go Forward Pine Bluff’s public-private partnership was to generate about $32 million from the sales tax and $20 million from the private sector, and they’re well on their way. He estimated his organization has raised $13 million while a grant writer hired by the city using sales tax-generated money has raised more than $5 million.
“Once we get some of this private investment that we have in terms of development agreements on the way, then that will come to fruition and we will surpass the $20 million mark, no doubt about it,” he said.
Pine Bluff NAACP communication director Michael McCray said his group opposes extending the Go Forward Pine Bluff tax because it funds “a failed public-private partnership.”
“We delivered the public dollars, they haven’t delivered the change,” he said.
McCray said he’s seen little of the promised progress and there is a lack of transparency regarding how Go Forward Pine Bluff chooses to spend the sales tax money.
“It’s transparent on the public side and it’s opaque on the private side and so it’s causing trouble with trust and it’s causing a problem with oversight and accountability,” he said.
Watley pointed to a summary on Go Forward Pine Bluff’s website that lists progress on proposed initiatives to demonstrate the group’s accomplishments.
Hiring a grant writer is one example of a completed initiative while the development of community gardens is an example of a work in progress. Additional plans include replacing two demolished hotels with a Marriott hotel and a go-kart track.
Work to expand the Sixth and Main Street Plaza is expected to start this week, Watley said. The $7.5 million project will provide a place where entrepreneurs can develop their ideas, he said, as well as provide restaurant and retail opportunities that citizens “are clamoring for.”
“People that still has their blinders still on, they just need to take them off and appreciate the hard work that’s taken place even through a pandemic because we have gone a long way in a short amount of time,” Watley said.
Over the last six years, the sales tax has generated about $27 million and Go Forward Pine Bluff has about $7 million remaining in the bank, he said.
The group presented a report during a February city council meeting showing how roughly $18.3 million of the tax-generated revenue had been spent. The largest portion of the money, $9.1 million, supported the reactivation of the Urban Renewal Agency, which was first established in 1962.
The agency was tasked with eliminating blight by razing condemned properties with the goal of building new, tax-producing properties. Around 190 homes have been torn down so far, but hundreds of additional abandoned properties need to be removed, Watley said.
Meanwhile, the Urban Renewal Agency is being investigated by the Arkansas State Police for missing money, according to the Pine Bluff Commercial. Watley said they self-reported to authorities last July and while it’s an “inopportune time” for the investigation to be made public now, he said he wants the facts to come to light.
“No one wants that investigation to wrap up more than us,” he said. “We want conclusion on that. We want to know what they found, what they did not find and if they found something, we want those responsible to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
If voters reject the tax extension, Watley said it’ll be “really tough” to continue the progress they’ve made. He estimated they’ll generate about $13 million this year and next, which will support the construction of the go-kart track, hotel and Sixth and Main Street Plaza project.
“We’re going to the voters to let them know what we’ve done and that we have a whole lot more work to do, but we can only do it with their financial support,” he said
If the sales tax extension is approved, Watley said they’ll complete renovations of downtown store buildings, construct new housing and be aggressive in establishing a movie theater and restaurants. By listing these projects now, Watley said Pine Bluff residents can hold officials accountable for what they do or don’t complete during the next cycle of the tax.
“We’re talking about them and giving them the information that they can look back in six or seven years and say did you all do what you were supposed to do or did you divert,” he said. “And so that’s trust and accountability in the city leaders and our organization at the time.”
Early voting is underway at the Jefferson County Courthouse. Registered voters can cast their ballot from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and on May 8.
Polls will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Election Day, May 9. Polling locations and sample ballots are available here.