On the heels of a decision by the local branch of the NAACP to recommend a no vote on two Go Forward Pine Bluff-sponsored taxes, the state chapter is recommending the same.
In a press release sent out this past week, Tommy Daniels, the state president, said the state NAACP "vehemently oppose(s) the new and renewal of the sales tax sponsored by Go Forward Pine Bluff and any other legislation that seeks to burden low-income taxpayers and undermine fair/transparent treatment government unfairly."
A five-eighths-cent citywide sales tax has been levied since late 2017 to pay for a variety of Go Forward-supported projects aimed at spurring business and enhancing the quality of life in Pine Bluff. The tax is sunsetting next year. A renewal of that same tax for another seven years is coming up for a vote on May 9. In addition to that tax, Go Forward proposed another three-eighths-cent sales tax with the proceeds to go to public safety. That three-eighths-cent tax would not expire.
Those who have spoken out against the Go Forward tax complain that the group is less than transparent and that many of its projects have, at best, been a waste of money. In general, they say the tax proceeds could have been spent on other city needs that would help all areas of Pine Bluff rather than select areas determined by Go Forward.
For its part, Go Forward officials point to a variety of areas where they say the tax has worked and been beneficial to Pine Bluff.
In a phone interview with The Commercial, Daniels said the NAACP takes a dim view of sales taxes because they hit poor people the hardest.
"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."
There are other Go Forward-type taxes being considered across the state, Daniels said.
"Pine Bluff is not the only Arkansas NAACP branch to confront unfair economic development taxes," he said. "The NAACP branch in Arkadelphia is fighting a similar half-cent sales tax. It seems to be happening all over the state."
Daniels said he made the decision to oppose the taxes after consultation with the group's executive board and other group officials. The decision to weigh in came after the Pine Bluff branch of the NAACP asked the state group for help.
Michael McCray, communications director for the Pine Bluff branch of the NAACP, announced recently that 24 members of the local organization's executive committee had voted to oppose the taxes. He said the local branch, like any other political action committee, had encouraged the state branch to take a stand against the tax. Daniels said he was glad to be able to offer the assistance.
"We support our branches," he said. "There are 79 branches in the state and we support them all. When we are approached, we talk to our committees and do our own research. This was OK'd by the board of directors. They think it's unfair the way these taxes are designed."
The Pine Bluff branch is now led by Ivan Whitfield, a former Pine Bluff council member who routinely railed against Go Forward's funding and its projects while in office.
"Go Forward is taxing the poor to give to the rich," said Whitfield.
And even though Whitfield is a former police officer and chief of police for the city who has lobbied for more support for public safety, he said recently that he could not support the three-eighths-cent tax because he said it will also be controlled by Go Forward.
"The way they have that three-eighths proposed is that an outside entity, which is Go Forward, is controlling that three-eighths," Whitfield said. "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."
Pine Bluff Police Chief Denise Richardson said in a recent interview she supports the tax.
Daniels said public-private partnerships can be beneficial, but he questioned the legality of the way Go Forward is operated, saying that, in his opinion, the state Constitution bars local governing bodies, such as the city of Pine Bluff, from investing in a private organization, such as Go Forward.
"Public-private partnerships were not designed to allow private-sector entities to dictate and control public-sector funding or replace duly elected public representation," he said. "Likewise, PPPs should not be used to avoid nonprofit or municipal rules, regulations and guidelines, i.e., FOIA, financial reporting, restricted funds, etc."
Daniels said such partnerships "should not replace public oversight, administration or transparency."
"Consequently," he said, "we join the Pine Bluff NAACP branch in support of formal investigations into the failed Go Forward public-private partnership, including, but not limited to, legislative audit, forensic examination, IRS referral, and federal and/or state criminal investigation (public corruption)."
Go Forward officials have defended their legal position to exist and operate.