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OPINION | LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Inside take on Go Forward Pine Bluff

by Leigh Cockrum Special to The Commercial | June 1, 2023 at 2:38 a.m.

Editor, The Commercial:

This is an Open Letter to the Editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial and the Citizens of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

As I read today's Editorial in The Pine Bluff Commercial (May 28, 2023), I was once again extremely frustrated. I know reporters should report the truth, but they should also report all sides of the story.

I should not have to defend what is being said about Go Forward Pine Bluff (GFPB), but I feel I must. My comments will be directed to the above referenced editorial in the paper. So here it goes.

First and foremost, I am a Pine Bluff resident, homeowner and tax paying citizen. I am also employed by GFPB. Did GFPB officials write this letter? No, I did. Do they know I am sending this letter to the PBC? Yes, I am being transparent.

To the citizens, our (GFPB) lack of transparency needs to be attributed to our lack of marketing. We have failed with that, but we are working on being better so that you are kept informed – should you want to be informed – about what we are trying to do to improve Pine Bluff.

I believe Mayor Shirley Washington recognized the fact that additional tax dollars and assistance with projects – private and public – only help our city. She saw the need to improve the quality of life our citizens want and deserve. Therefore, she became a supporter of GFPB. Not for her own doing, but for the city.

As the PBC refers to the "pesky ones," I believe in my heart that those people only want what is good for themselves and not for the city. It is perfectly alright to question, and should be, but not in an accusatory manner. There is a difference. Ask questions for the right reasons.

A system was set up prior to the 2017 tax campaign to approve all projects submitted for funding by both sales tax dollars and private contributions made to GFPB by local businesses. The Public Private Review Committee (PPRC) was formed with three private individuals appointed by GFPB (members are Tommy May, Mary Pringos and Eric Walden Jr.) and three public appointees by the mayor (Mayor Shirley Washington, Council Member Glen Brown Jr. and Public Housing Authority Executive Director Jeannie Epperson).

These six members review any project that is submitted for city sales tax and private funding. They ask questions such as, does this fit in the plan (the 2017 GFPB Plan proposed for sales tax funding), are funds available, who, what, where, when, why, etc. Once the project is approved, it is then sent to either the GFPB Board of Directors if private funding is to be used, or the city council if public dollars are used, for approval. The private budget is also approved by the GFPB board as well as the city council approving the budget for the city sales tax dollars.

There are certain projects that cannot be paid for with public dollars, such as education. We have helped five teachers obtain their master's degrees and we have helped 43 teachers become certified including seven who passed the principal's exam. Others are working on reaching full certification – WITH PRIVATE DOLLARS AND GRANTS OBTAINED BY GFPB.

As with any government entity, Requests for Proposals (RFP) and Requests for Qualifications (RFQ) must be publicized. This is a time-consuming process. If this wasn't followed, then the citizens would and could question why certain contractors – or the like – were used to build a project. Just ask the Economic and Community Development Department about their delays with Streetscape, or delays and costs changing for the Aquatic Center. Due diligence with taxpayer dollars is followed.

I am used to being a part of private organizations that can decide they want to build or do "x" and do it. With sales tax funds, that process is delayed – up to years.

".... now when the tap is going to run dry..." maybe there are those that are now realizing the good things that are happening will now, because of and related to our work, is going to go away. I hope those people are now seeing that things look scary with the extra funding the sales tax and private funding were supporting, not to mention the $5+ million dollars the sales tax funded grant writer brought into the city, are all going to go away.

I agree that the city budget needs to be looked at, but I don't believe this amount of extra money will ever be realized through the current city budget. Efficiencies can be gained as with any organization, but enough?

The PBC mentioned Opportunity House and the Kevin Collins police training complex. As I know it, these projects have not been discussed for sales tax funding. Maybe part of the police training complex would fall under our plan, that would have to be looked at when and if it comes up for the PPRC's consideration. Of course, now all project funding is spoken for through the sales tax through September 2024.

Dr. [Ryan] Watley's salary continues to be a piece of discussion. No part of his salary is paid with public dollars. Private contributions pay his salary (as well as mine!). FACT. You may not be a fan of Dr. Watley, and I know there are many people who are not, but he has the best for Pine Bluff in his heart. Otherwise, he would not be here.

Let's go back to the city budget. The NAACP wants to look at the budget, as well they should and you, private citizen as well. The budget is on the city's website. Any questions about it can be answered with a FOIA. Hopefully in the future, additional dollars will be found but I dare say with our declining population and declining city coffers, that money cannot "be found" in the budget.

I would invite an audit of the city's budget. Oh, wait. Auditors already do that. GFPB funds are also audited but those are not FOIA-able.

It is continued to be said that the GFPB board is in charge of city tax dollars. As mentioned above, they are not. The GFPB board is your cheerleader, dear citizens. You need to be their supporters. If you were to look at who is on our board, I would dare say that if anything illegal or under the table is going on, they would not be a part of the board.

The GFPB board takes into consideration all things and they approve projects only spent with private contributions.

This is Leigh Cockrum and I approve this message. How refreshing it would be to be able to work in harmony. What a glorious thought.

Leigh Cockrum,

GFPB employee who has no public-comment authority.

Print Headline: Inside take on GFPB


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