By Guest Contributors Ivan Whitfield and Bruce Lockett
Six months ago, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran an editorial that said Go Forward should get “it’s” money and implied that any city council members who disagreed were thieves. True to our mission, the Arkansas Delta Informer believes that we should allow the council members a fair opportunity to respond to the community.
When the Simmons Foundation started hosting Go Forward meetings, they did not disclose that they planned to request $30 million in public funding. This came as a complete surprise to the majority of our residents. Community opposition emerged when the general public was finally aware of what was being proposed. When community leaders tried to offer a true public-private partnership with Go Forward (A Better Way Forward), Tommy May balked and told the community to “take it or leave it.”
Go Forward’s promise to the citizens was for $20 million in matching funds from the business sector and transformative change for Pine Bluff. The ballot initiative passed in a low-turnout, off-year, summer election cycle, which I would argue is not representative of the will of the entire community.
A public-private partnership for economic development in Pine Bluff is a good idea. However, a public-private partnership is not just a private entity that spends public funding. A true partnership requires public participation, transparency, and reciprocity. The city promised $30 million from a 5/8th cent sales tax. And the promises Go Forward made was for $20 million in matching funds from the business community and transformative change for Pine Bluff.
MYTH #1 – The 5/8th cent sales tax does not belong to Go Forward. It’s the citizen’s money. The Simmons Foundation utilized $300,000 of taxpayer dollars to hire consultants and professionals, including lawyers and CPAs, to promote Go Forward. If the Simmons Foundation wanted to place Go Forward on the ballot—they could have. Just like Mayor Carl Redus did with a Penny for Progress, which the citizens passed in 2011 and that was responsible for a myriad of tangible economic development, community development, infrastructure, and public improvement projects. However, Go Forward was not placed on the ballot—a general use sales tax was.
Go Forward was not placed on the ballot because the Simmons Foundation wanted the flexibility to do anything they wanted with the money. If they put Go Forward on the ballot, they would have to disclose the specific projects and project budgets for public consideration. The Simmons Foundation refused to provide this level of transparency. Instead, they placed a general sales tax on the ballot that Go Forward endorsed. The benefit of this is flexibility—however, any sales tax goes into the general fund for the city, which is subject to administration by the city council. The 5/8th cent sales tax is the citizen’s money.
Myth #2 -– There were no public Go Forward meetings. Go Forward had a year of public meetings to get citizens’ input and buy-in. However, while regular meetings were held, they were not open to the public or accessible to the grassroots or working class. In addition, the Go Forward meeting required participants to sign non-disclosure agreements to participate. Therefore, these were not public meetings. In contrast, two organizations have held actual public meetings regarding downtown development—Pine Bluff Rising and the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Alliance.
Myth #3 -– Go Forward is not transparent. The $30 million public dollars are transparent because they are required to be by law. Unfortunately, the $20 million private dollars are not transparent because Go Forward refuses to provide audited financial statements to the public. Therefore, Go Forward is not a transparent initiative.
The ADG editorial used a false analogy of a father who promised his son a car but instead used the child’s money to repair their house.
A better analogy is a child convincing his father to help him purchase a used car. The child convinces the father to contribute $600 (60%) of the cost and promises to pay $400 (40%) himself. The father agrees and allows the child to access some funds ($200). However, instead of purchasing spare parts, tags, gas, insurance, etc., for the car—the child decides to throw house parties and buy play stations instead. When the father asks the child where his $400 is, the son says it’s none of his father’s business. Unfortunately, the seasons change, and there is an emergency—the roof caves in around the house. So, the father decides to spend money on repairing their home. The father may or may not choose to continue to support the car in the future. In the meantime, he will fix the house for the family first, and then wait for the child to live up to his end of the bargain for the car.
Mayor Shirley Washington and other proponents say that we “promised” Go Forward the money. Or that the city has a “moral” obligation to fund Go Forward since they orchestrated the ballot initiative (once again with taxpayer dollars). While morality is important to our residents, the city is a legal entity. It operates on rules, regulations, and legal obligations (not moral ones). While the Mayor may have made a promise to Go Forward, we took an oath of office to all the citizens of Pine Bluff. Not just the business community.
Suppose the city council is satisfied with the progress that Go Forward makes. In that case, they will continue to support the initiative. However, the Simmons Foundation’s risk was that if Go Forward underperformed or the composition of the city council changed, then the city council members could decide to support different legislative priorities. That is ultimately what is happening today—not theft. At the end of the day, a private business held private meetings – to expend public funds. This is not the type of “partnership” that will help Pine Bluff. Therefore, it is irresponsible and unfair to report the exercise of political prerogatives as “thievery.”