Go Forward Pine Bluff pushes for tax campaign

Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley opens a meeting with Pine Bluff city councilmembers including Steven Shaner on Thursday inside the Du Bocage House. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)
Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley opens a meeting with Pine Bluff city councilmembers including Steven Shaner on Thursday inside the Du Bocage House. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

Go Forward Pine Bluff has drafted a proposal to renew a five-eighths-cent tax that funds its projects and add a three-eighths-cent tax earmarked for public safety.

Go Forward CEO Ryan Watley met with council members and Mayor Shirley Washington on Thursday for the first of two meetings designed to gauge their thoughts on a campaign to ask voters for the additional sales tax to supplement the current tax approved in 2017.

Speaking with the city leaders over pizza and drinks inside the Du Bocage House on Fourth Avenue, Watley presented them with a 20-page draft of projects completed and funded by the original Go Forward tax along with action steps under each pillar of the private-public partnership. Go Forward is asking the city to place on the May 9 ballot a 1-cent sales tax in which three-eighths of each cent will be reserved for public safety capital expenditures and salaries with no sunset starting in October of this year. The other five-eighths of each cent would be a renewal of the current tax, which sunsets in September 2024 and would be up for the same in 2031 if passed.

Watley said the draft is a result of community input sessions and commentary from City Council members. Go Forward outlined its capital improvements and other achievements in the past seven years with the draft, although some council members have publicly criticized it in the past, adding that it duplicated some of the work City Council members are elected to do and that it did nothing to fund public safety.

"Public safety is important to any community," Watley said, when asked how much public safety drove the campaign idea. "We want to be able to make sure that our first responders have good, competitive salaries. We want to be able to attract them. Again, when you look at the whole thing -- removing blight, bringing development -- all of that helps make a community safe. People have things to do other than participate in the criminal element.

"And then, we can balance the conversation with, 'Oh, I can go to the aquatic center. I can go to the Pine Bluff Community Center. I can go to King Cotton. I can go to the 5A [state high school basketball] tournament. I can invite my family to stay in the Marriott hotel for a tournament this weekend. The students at UAPB, they'll have something to do. We can increase enrollment that way. That's why this is very important for people to understand the comprehensive nature of this and what's on the line."

Speaking of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Watley said projects from the expanded tax could help increase enrollment at that school and at Southeast Arkansas College anywhere from 25 to 40%.

"Working together, anything's possible," Watley said. "We need a tighter partnership with the recruiting department at UAPB and at SEARK, and we have to understand the importance of that. That's the bloodline of our city, younger people coming here and deciding, 'I can get a job here. I can raise a family here. There's a great quality of life here. I can buy a house here at an early age.'"

First-year Council Members Lanette Frazier and Latisha Brunson, and Council Members Lloyd Holcomb Jr., Steven Shaner and Bruce Lockett, attended the meeting with Washington and shared their feedback.

"People voting for this tax want to see some tangible things," Shaner said, adding tweaks to the original 2017 Go Forward plan have been made rather than changes to its goals. "The people with testimonies, you have to put them out front and have them say, 'This is what the city did for me.'"

Frazier said work under the current plan is being done, but the foundation has to be built before citizens can see the progress.

"It's going to be tweaking along the way," she said, adding naysayers will always bring "noise" even as everyone is invited to examine the plan for themselves.

"We can't allow the noise to drown out the progress," Frazier added.

Lockett seemed skeptical about renewing the tax, adding the 20-page draft was a lot to digest in a short amount of time.

"My initial thought about reopening this tax is that it needed more involvement from the local grassroots people, and the people who pay the taxes need to have a bigger say in it," Lockett said. "That's where I am with this tax, being able to explain it to the people and get their buy-in. If that's successful, I'm for it. If they don't buy into it, I'm against it."

In fact, Go Forward is planning a community meeting to go over the proposed tax campaign at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 22 at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. Before that time, Watley plans to meet with council members next Thursday to solicit more ideas.

Those meetings will be key in finalizing the campaign.

"When we come back on the 15th, we'll digest what we talked about tonight and see if they want to add or subtract some things and see what's more palpable, and we'll go to the citizens about it," Watley said. "Based on that, that's how the council will decide if that's what they want to put on the ballot."

Lockett said he anticipated having four to six more months of public conversation and input, adding he thought the process was rushed.

Watley said there would be no harm in waiting until August to vote for or against the tax.

"It's just that we've been preparing since last, I think, August with community-oriented meetings and working really hard," Watley said. "The time is now. The only thing it would do in delaying to August is [delay] asking the people to renew. When we had those community meetings, that was part of the question: 'What can we do? What can we implement to help you guys feel confident about this?' And then we showcased the work we did, and people saw that and were proud of the work we accomplished.

"We need them to know we need more time, more funds to invest in this community. If we don't invest in ourselves, we'll have trouble getting other people to invest in us."

  photo  Pine Bluff city councilwoman Lanette Frazier listens to comments by Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley while examining a 20-page draft of a 1-cent sales tax proposal inside the Du Bocage house on Thursday. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)