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Public safety at issue after tax defeat in Pine Bluff

by Eplunus Colvin | May 22, 2023 at 3:15 a.m.
A Pine Bluff fire truck pumps water on the 200 block of South Poplar Street in this Sept. 21, 2022 file photo. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series.

Pine Bluff residents recently voted against two sales tax initiatives, one of which focused on improving public safety. The permanent three-eighths-cent sales tax was initiated by Go Forward Pine Bluff to benefit the city's fire and police departments.

It drew criticism from some who said the wording of the ballot title didn't specify how the proposed public safety tax would be used, while supporters argued that the tax was needed to increase salaries for first responders so Pine Bluff could remain competitive with other cities.

Pine Bluff has one of the nation's highest violent crime rates per 100,000 residents, and that condition is seen as one of the factors contributing to a steep population decline in the area. The tax was seen as a glimmer of hope that city leaders felt could, if passed, help turn that negative perception around.

A hit-and-run accident earlier this month was solved immediately with an arrest within hours using the FLOCK camera system that has been installed throughout the city, paid for by Go Forward Pine Bluff. Go Forward CEO Ryan Watley said Go Forward has to explore such issues to help decrease crime and increase wages, training, and retention. Back in February, Police Chief Denise Richardson spoke on the public safety tax initiative and how it would help move the Police Department into the 21st century, as the revenue would have added to the budget the department already has.


For years, the Pine Bluff City Council looked for ways to support the men and women of public safety, notably the Pine Bluff Police Department, whose turnover in police officers was partially due to noncompetitive salaries.

The Go Forward-sponsored public safety three-eighths-cent sales tax, which failed by 20 votes, was initiated to financially support the city's fire and police departments through enhanced training, equipment and an improved salary schedule.

Efforts to increase salaries in the past came in the form of suggested bonuses, which typically failed to pass during full council meetings. More recently, an increase was made during the creation of the 2022 budget with adjustments of salaries for uniformed employees, in accordance with the Johansen Salary Schedule.

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington said the projected costs for the uniformed salary adjustments would be significant because of the large number of uniformed employees who have been with the city for a substantial period of time. At that time, adjustments to the budget were being made to make those salary increases happen.

According to Washington, the salaries are being paid with the tax received from Saracen Casino Resort, but she told The Commercial, "Casino dollars are only going to go so far because there are so many needs that have to be met."

Washington recalls that when she first came into office, the starting base salary for police officers was around $27,000 while similar departments' base pay was around $40,000. She also said city employees who had been there for 30 years and more were still at base pay.

"We did the Johansson salary survey and increased salaries for uniformed and non-uniformed also," said Washington. Without the public safety tax, Washington said, she is concerned about how the city will remain competitive now that the base pay has doubled during her tenure as mayor.

"We still have to be competitive to recruit and retain," said Washington. "We still have to continue to pour money into building these salaries so that we can continue to match up with other places."

Public Safety Chairman Glen Brown Jr. explained in a previous Public Safety Committee meeting how the proposed tax would be used by both Richardson and Fire Chief Shauwn Howell, both of whom have rallied for better salaries for recruits and promotions as well as technology advances for training.

Brown described the public safety spending proposal based on $3 million in annual revenue.

Had the tax passed, 60% or $1.8 million of the annual revenue from the tax would be placed into a restricted salary account to fund the salary schedule and up to 10% or $180,000 of the total allocation.

According to Brown, 5% or $90,000 for each department could be used for sign-on bonus recruitment, professional development and continued education incentives and uniform allowances.

"Additionally, monies will be used to fund a cost-of-living increase of 2-3% when financially feasible," said Brown, who added that 17% or $510,000 of annual revenues from the tax would be placed into a restricted account to fund equipment and building upgrades for the fire department.

"Only 75% [of the $510,000] or $382,000 of the allocation can be used to support debt," said Brown. "In lieu of financing, departments can establish a capital improvement fund for acquisition and maintenance of vehicles, equipment and other purchases related to the fire department."

Brown continued by saying the same would apply to the police department, and 6% or $180,000 of annual revenue from the tax would be placed into a restricted reserve account for public safety emergencies or debt retirement.

The tax, which would have been permanent, would have provided funding for salaries, a new fire training facility, sign-on bonuses, professional development, building upgrades, equipment, public safety emergencies, debt retirement, continued education incentives and uniform allowances, to name a few items.


The support of the public safety tax by the chief of police and fire chief was visibly noticeable, but it was also noticeable that the public support of the sales tax began and ended with them.

It was noted by many that the proposed three-eighths-cent sales tax had not been endorsed by the Pine Bluff Police Department's Fraternal Order of Police or the Fire Department's Fraternal Order of Firefighters. Those employee groups remained silent during the campaign for the tax, neither publicly opposing nor publicly supporting the tax.

Ivan Whitfield, a former city council member who was at one time the city's police chief, has been an outspoken critic of the Go Forward tax, both when he was on the council and now as president of the NAACP. He said he had been told there had been a meeting between Washington and some police department employees who wanted to see in writing how the tax dollars would be spent, but that the meeting ended without any resolution.

"The officers were asked, 'What, you don't trust this lady?'" Whitfield said, referring to Washington. "It didn't go well."

When asked about the lack of support from the fire and police, Washington agreed that many wouldn't come forward in support of the tax.

"Some of them didn't have trust because they said in the past, long before my time, a public safety tax had been issued and that they had been promised to get raises and never got the raises," she said. "I asked them to please don't hold that against us because everything that I promised them I would do, since I have been in office we've done our very best to fulfill the promise. I was hoping they would look at just how far we've come from where we started to where we are today, with the goal to continue to move us forward."

FOP President Sgt. Bill Wiegand declined to comment on where the organization stood with the public safety tax but did say some supported the tax while others didn't and that they respected the outcome of the tax initiative decided by the voters.

Attempts to contact fire chief Howell were unsuccessful. Capt. Michael Boykin, former president of the Fraternal Order of Firefighters, said previously he did not think many people in his department were for the tax. Police Chief Denise Richardson said she was not ready to comment about the tax and how its failure would affect the Pine Bluff Police Department.

Washington noted the public safety tax wasn't included with a proposed five-eighths-cent sales tax, which would have been collected for another seven years, because when salaries are being funded by a tax, the tax can't have a sunset date. Consequently, the two taxes had to be separate ballot items.


The Pine Bluff City Council passed a budget for 2023 of almost $37 million. During most of those budget hearings, with budget adjustment requests and increases, the question was often posed by city council members: where would the money come from?

As noted in part one of our series, Washington said the partnership with Go Forward Pine Bluff has helped sustain the city in some areas and advance it in others. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds have also helped the city with projects such as the renovation of the Opportunity House, but as those temporary funds are depleted and with no renewal of the Go Forward Pine Bluff-sponsored tax, some projects will have to be set to the side while it is determined what projects take precedence over the other.

In 2022, a resolution authorizing Washington to contract with Enterprise Fleet Management Trust to lease motor vehicles for the Pine Bluff Police Department with the city was approved. Washington signed a lease agreement solidifying the contract between the city of Pine Bluff and the company in May of 2022.

Through the leasing program, vehicles would be switched out every four to five years, with the goal of leasing 88 vehicles over 10 years, beginning with 51 in the first year. At the time of the presentation, the lease amount was approximately $404 a month per vehicle. The estimated fleet equity by 2026 would be a little over $700,000, according to the analysis presented by Enterprise.

"We are contracting with Enterprise to have a new police fleet," Washington said. "That is not going to be cheap, but we were trying to build in a budget so in four years all of our cars would be rotated in and out, with no car older than four years and enough cars so the officers can have take-home cars for security in the community."

Washington said the needs for public safety are great. Chief Howell has stated previously the need for new fire trucks, and he has noted that the department's current training facility had water damage due to flooding and stabilization issues, something that the public safety tax could have helped fund.

"We need that fire training facility. We need upgrades, and we need to continue to pour into public safety, because if we don't, we will continue to be the incubator, just training them and preparing them and getting them ready to be recruited to another department," said Washington.

"Without the tax, it's going to be almost impossible to get us where we need. It will be basically impossible to do what we need to do without the tax."

In part three we hear from the opposition and talk to both sides about the way forward.

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