Opposition grows to sales taxes

Three new welcome signs greet travelers coming into Pine Bluff.

The Jefferson County chapter of Arkansas Community Organization has come out against both Go Forward Pine Bluff-recommended sales taxes, which will be up for votes on May 9, according to group officials.

Members of ACO met on March 23 and "all members present voted to oppose the tax," according to a news release sent out on Tuesday.

"Any kind of sales tax is a burden on low- to moderate-income people, especially during a time when prices for the basic necessities have been rising," said Rosetta Madison, president of the Jefferson County chapter. "Most of Go Forward's projects aren't addressing the most important needs of the majority of our city's people such as improved city services in our neighborhood, jobs and basic needs for our city parks."

Madison said ACO pushes for the advancement of Pine Bluff but that the group did not think Go Forward was the way to make that happen.

"We want Pine Bluff to go forward and make progress, but we cannot support a sales tax that does not address the needs of the struggling households in our city," she said.

Demetrius Melvin, site coordinator for ACO, said the group's dissatisfaction with Go Forward extended to both of the proposed taxes on the ballot – a renewal of a five-eighth cent tax for Go Forward to use on specific projects and a three-eighth cent tax for public safety. The renewal of the Go Forward tax would, like the current one, extend for another seven years, starting in 2024 and sunsetting in 2031, while the public safety tax would not expire.

"We lumped them both together," Melvin said.

Melvin said ACO members believe a sales tax proposal should be specific and describe where and how much money will be spent, adding that tax dollars should go toward improvement projects in all the city's four wards and not just what he described as Go Forward's projects for the downtown area.

"We have city parks that aren't being cared for, streets that are full of potholes and other basic services that aren't being met," he said, adding that such a focus is consistent with ACO's objectives, which are to ensure that lower income people have access to healthcare, housing and livable incomes. "Go Forward is not addressing the problems people are having in their neighborhoods. There's little to none of that."

ACO's thumbs down follows that of two other groups – the Pine Bluff Chapter of the NAACP and the Arkansas Chapter of the NAACP.

Late last month, Tommy Daniels, head of the state NAACP, said Go Forward had been less than transparent in its operations and that the two sales taxes would harm not help many Pine Bluff residents.

"Poor people and households lacking financial assets do not benefit equally from economic development tax initiatives," he stated. "Yet, they bear the burden of the economic development tax on every purchase they make, e.g., food, clothing, shelter, etc."

Before that announcement, Ivan Whitfield, head of the Pine Bluff chapter of the NAACP, said the local membership had voted to recommend a no vote on the taxes.

"The way they have that three-eighths proposed is that an outside entity, which is Go Forward, is controlling that three-eighths," Whitfield said at the time. "It was not suggested by our elected officials to do the three-eighths. No one knows if that tax will be used for raises, for equipment or for extra personnel. Once again it's a general three-eighths-cent public safety tax. That's the worst way you can have a public safety tax and not knowing what it will be used for."