Pine Bluff considers tax to support private development effort | Arkansas Blog

Monday, June 5, 2017

Pine Bluff considers tax to support private development effort

Posted By on Mon, Jun 5, 2017 at 7:25 AM

Jeannie Roberts reports in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning on a special sales tax election in Pine Bluff on the question of increasing the local sales tax by 5-8ths of a cent for seven years to produce $32 million for community development efforts. Early voting begins Tuesday.

The money is to go to an independent organization, Go Forward Pine Bluff, which is reportedly to get a $20 million contribution from Simmons First Foundation, a charitable arm of the bank headquartered in the city.

Participants in the planning process for Go Forward had to sign non-disclosure agreements. An independent committee — not a part of government — will oversee the group's work. Mayor Shirley Washington will participate. The article says the City Council will have to approve money routed from the tax to Go Forward. It is not clear from the article if specific expenditures will be approved, or simply cash transfers.

Should the tax be approved, will meetings, decisions and records of Go Forward's use of public money be open to the public? These questions seem to be at the root of opposition from some members of the City Council. From the article:

"I am 100 percent totally against it," Alderman Steven Mays said. "It sends us in the wrong direction. It's actually creating a new government on top of our existing government. It's not a good idea for our citizens, now or in the future."
The model in public-private partnerships in Little Rock has long been that the public provides the money and private interests call the shots and reap the profit. That's how the annual $300,000 taxpayer handout by the Little Rock City Board to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce works. Well-intentioned though chamber officials undoubtedly are, opinions sometimes vary on their intentions. The taxpayer-subsidized Little Rock chamber, for example, led the state takeover of the local public school district. Opinions differed on that, to put it mildly.

How private interests spend their own money and account for it is absolutely their right. But the question: Should a private entity's use of tax money be subject to the same scrutiny and accountability given public agencies?

Go Forward has a Facebook page for its campaign.

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