NAACP branch opposes Go Forward Pine Bluff tax proposals

Three new welcome signs greet travelers coming into Pine Bluff.
Three new welcome signs greet travelers coming into Pine Bluff.

The Pine Bluff branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) unanimously voted on Thursday during their regularly scheduled meeting to oppose Go Forward Pine Bluff's proposed 5/8-cent tax renewal and new 3/8-cent sales tax.

According to a news release from the branch communications director Michael McCray, 24 members of the executive committee voted. Declining to name those individuals, McCray said they all agreed the Go Forward initiative would impose an unfair economic development tax and represents a failed public-private partnership.

The 5/8-cent tax renewal would fund Go Forward Pine Bluff's projects, festivals and other initiatives spearheaded by the organization led by CEO Ryan Watley, if passed. The new 3/8-cent tax is earmarked for public safety.

"Go Forward is taxing the poor to give to the rich," said Pine Bluff NAACP branch president Ivan Whitfield. Speaking against the tax in a special-called city council meeting last month, he said during a follow-up interview that he could not support either tax because they are controlled by GFPB.

And though Whitfield has always garnered support for public safety, he said he could not support the 3/8-cent tax.

"The way they have that three-eighths proposed is that an outside entity, which is Go Forward, is controlling that three-eighths," said the former Pine Bluff Police Chief and former city council member. "It was not suggested by our elected officials to do the three-eighths."

Whitfield continued by saying no one on the GFPB board is an elected official and the details of how the tax will be used were not explained.

"No one knows if that tax will be used for raises, for equipment or for extra personnel," said Whitfield. "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."

Pine Bluff Police Chief Denise Richardson expressed last month how important the tax would be for her department to ensure progression in public safety, saying she hoped the tax would be in addition to the budget already allocated to the police.

While the chiefs of their respective departments may have an idea what the tax, if passed, will be used for, Whitfield said in the end they work for the mayor.

"Once it's passed the mayor doesn't even have control of it. Go Forward has control of it," said Whitfield.

Whitfield said transparency is lacking and the details of each tax need to be on the ballot.

McCray also agreed with the lack of transparency, comparing it to GFPB's efforts in 2017 when it was campaigning for the tax to pass.

"What was often reported then is that Go Forward had a series of public meetings and that's how they came up with the plan," said McCray, who participated in a grassroots effort to table the tax because opponents felt there was not enough community participation input.

According to McCray, meetings were held in the middle of the day and participants had to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Several other organizations, according to McCray, were holding public meetings with their ideas of progressing the city forward like the Delta Rhythm and Bayous and Pine Bluff Rising, which he said presented true public/private partnerships with true collaboration with the community that Go Forward did not offer.

Now in 2023, McCray finds himself in a similar situation and says the Pine Bluff NAACP will hold a series of town hall meetings and informational sessions in all four wards to educate the public about the effect of the proposed new taxes and to solicit better ideas and community input on how to improve the wards and the city.

"Other Arkansas NAACP branches have also experienced unfair economic development taxes as well," said McCray.

According to the press release, the NAACP has historically opposed regressive sales taxes because those hit poor people the hardest.

"Poor people and households lacking financial assets do not benefit equally from economic development tax initiatives," said McCray. "Yet, they bear the burden of the economic development tax on every purchase they make."

NAACP executive board member Jack Foster agrees. Foster said the GFPB initiatives keep the rich richer and the poor struggling.

"There is profit in dealing with poor folks and I'm really concerned, especially for Black people that are insensitive to the needs of the poor and downtrodden," said Foster. "I think that is what is happening right now. There is no real concern about what happens to low to moderate-income people. It's not a priority in this city. No one cares."

Foster had openly made comments about his opposition against GFPB separate from the NAACP, even threatening to sue the city during a public meeting.

"I was having a problem with the city funding the Go Forward initiative and if they continued to do it, I was going to sue them and that position has not changed," he said. "I think what they are doing is totally illegal and I firmly believe there was a conspiracy between the Go Forward people and some city officials to utilize taxpayer's money to fund Go Forward initiatives."

Foster said, in his opinion, that is how individuals associated with GFPB are compensated for their loyalty. He goes on to accuse several elected officials currently in the position of being "puppets" and in "Go Forward's back pocket."

"I'm not saying they are receiving money. What I'm saying is that Go Forward is controlling them," said Foster.

The mission of the NAACP is to secure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights in order to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons, a mission that McCray said the organization is committed to fulfilling.

"No one is against progress for the city," said McCray. "No one is against going forward, but there is a better way for it to be done."