PINE BLUFF, Ark. – The debate on whether or not to raise taxes is escalating in Pine Bluff. New and old sales taxes are up for a vote on May 9.

During a city-organized press conference Tuesday, passion at the podium and conflict from the crowd were out in full force. Opinions surrounded how sales tax should be spent in Pine Bluff.

The two tax ballot initiatives together would amount to a one-cent sales tax. A little over half would go to growth projects and the rest is for the police and fire departments.

“We have to support this tax,” Pine Bluff Ward 3 Councilmember Lanette Frazier stated.

Since 2017, Go Forward Pine Bluff (GFPB) has promised to focus on economic development, education, infrastructure, and quality of life. 

According to GFPB CEO Ryan Watley, about five million dollars a year have gone toward different projects such as the aquatic center, certifying dozens of teachers, demolishing over 175 blighted properties, housing first responders and bringing festivals to the city.

Under Go Forward Pine Bluff, over 13 million dollars in private funds have gone to their initiatives, according to Watley.

“That’s how we are able to leverage or bring about more funding to Pine Bluff because the tax cannot do it alone,” Watley said.

“When we started this process, we had no way of knowing that we were going to face a pandemic, COVID-19, which stopped some of those things from happening or slowed down the progress of some of the things we had in our plan,” Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington explained.

Unable to accomplish everything the city wanted in the past seven years, they are asking for another seven for things such as a movie theater, a hotel, and investments in each ward beyond the downtown area.

“They will see far more tangible things rolling out than what they’ve seen in the past. That’s guaranteed,” Washington said.

Ivan Whitfield and the Pine Bluff NAACP oppose the general use tax for its vagueness, claiming a millage for a new school should take priority.

The first tax reads “Renewal of a 0.625% local sales and use tax within the City of Pine Bluff (the “City”), for a period of seven years commencing October 1, 2024 and ending September 30, 2031.”

“This tax is not a good tax for our community,” Whitfield said. “Under (former) Mayor Carl Redus, they had a ‘penny for progress tax’. When people went to the ballot, they got to choose what they were for or against, but on this, you’re just for or against what they want to do.”

The second tax reads “Adoption of a 0.375% local sales and use tax within the City of Pine Bluff (the “City”), the net collections of which remaining after deduction of the administrative charges of the State of Arkansas and required rebates, will be used for police and fire department purposes.

John Fenley, an entrepreneur who moved to Pine Bluff, held signs in opposition to the Pine Bluff Go Forward tax.

“The city would be better off if they just helicoptered the money down on the people,” he said.

Fenley claimed the tax has done more harm than good. He said he has tried to open businesses like a go-kart track but hasn’t seen eye to eye with the government.

“How much money did you receive from the Go Forward tax?” Fenley asked during the presser.

“That is an inappropriate question, sir,” Washington replied.

“It’s not that I’m against progress. I just don’t think Go Forward is doing a good job,” Fenley explained.

If officials want to get the tax renewed and a new tax for police and firefighter salaries, supplies, and benefits, they said they’ll need everyone going in the same direction

“We must come together and decide whether or not a penny is too much for us to bear or serve as a catalyst for continued growth and development,” Pine Bluff Ward 2 Councilman Glen Brown Jr. said.

About 70% of Pine Bluff voters approved the sales tax when it was created in 2017. Voters will make the final decision on whether both taxes go through at the polls on May 9.