Flowers, Washington discuss various Pine Bluff issues, solutions in segment of 'The Newsroom' | Arkansas Democrat Gazette (2024)

In an exclusive interview, the mayoral runoff candidates, incumbent Mayor Shirley Washington and state Rep. Vivian Flowers, discussed various issues affecting Pine Bluff. Topics included affordable housing, taxes, crime, the audit, allegations and the fate of the Go Forward Pine Bluff projects.

The interview was conducted by Byron Tate, editor of The Commercial, as part of a segment of The Newsroom, an ongoing feature that brings in newsmakers in Pine Bluff for sit-down conversations.

Tate acknowledged that while other candidates may still file as independents later in the year, the winner of Tuesday’s runoff election for the Democratic primary position will likely be the next mayor of Pine Bluff.

What would the city look like if the candidate’s opponent was elected, Tate asked. Washington asserted that she was unsure of her opponent’s intentions, but said she knew what she would accomplish if reelected.

“Right now the things that we have not been able to accomplish during this term is homes and I know that we need homes and that’s going to be one of my focus points as we move forward into this next term,” she said. “We’re going to look in terms of building affordable housing for the lower-income people.”

Washington said she is looking at building houses in all wards. “We have some properties that we’ve gotten titled on in the north side and then we have properties in central Pine Bluff, eastern Pine Bluff and then on the west side,” she said. “We’re getting ready to start there.”

Washington also spoke about the upgrades to the city’s park and more activities for young people. “We’re embracing our youth,” she said. “We know that we’re working on improving the quality of education.”

She also said crime will be addressed and that she planned to put initiatives in place to attract more businesses and economic development.

Flowers expressed her commitment to tackling crime and implementing initiatives to entice businesses and foster economic development.

In reflecting on the city’s past seven years under Washington, Flowers emphasized a pressing issue and concern: the continuous population decline.

“I’ve mentioned that we are the fastest-declining MSA in the country … not in Arkansas — in the country,” she said. “We’ve lost over 10,000 jobs. We’ve lost over 10,000 people.”

She also spoke about issues surrounding the school district and issues tied to violence.

“The problem with homicide is our homicide rate and we also know that it’s an issue with jobs,” she said.

Flowers also discussed economic development, food insecurity and crime.

“Whether we’re talking about jobs, schools and especially crime-fighting, we have to go deeper and I think that we have to invest in prevention,” she said. “I don’t think that we’ve seen much of that.”

During the interview, Flowers discussed the transportation infrastructure, emphasizing that most cities lack the level of infrastructure that Pine Bluff has, which includes railroads, an interstate, a port and an airport.

She also provided more clarity about the legislative audit concerning improper spending by Pine Bluff officials, stating that her purpose for being at the hearing in Little Rock was to ensure that legislators did not harm the city by overemphasizing certain aspects.

“I’ve served on audit before and to be very frank, when you are dealing with those kinds of situations, again the role of the audit committee is to review and for the legislators to say ‘Hey, wait a minute. Do we need to pass legislation, do we need to change rules, do we need to make sure that in that area the prosecutor has been notified?’” Flowers said. “‘Do we need to make sure that they’ve made adequate changes so that they don’t come back before us in the future?’ And so I think that those issues were addressed without frankly drilling down on Pine Bluff to make it look like because we are a predominantly African American city that we can’t handle fiduciary [responsibilities].”

Washington inquired if the legislators were interested in learning whether the city had implemented safeguards to prevent a recurrence of the audit discrepancies that had occurred.

“We had definitely done that,” she said. “We had worked with our accountants, our department heads, our attorneys and we put all those benchmarks in place, and I think that we were able to satisfy the legislators when they questioned us in regard to what we had done and how we would make sure that the same infractions didn’t occur again.”

During a discussion about Opportunity House, a homeless shelter that was being planned for the old First Ward School, Tate asked whether the envisioned shelter had “overpromised and under-delivered” given that it would now function as a part-time day room rather than operating on a full-time basis as a shelter.

“We’re delivering more than what we had,” Washington said.

According to Washington, she is wanting to start with a level of service that can be sustained.

“We’re offering services that our people didn’t have,” she said. “I’ve said this before, emergency shelters in the past, the first thing people come in and ask is, ‘is there any place I can shower or is there any place I can wash some clothes or you have a clothes closet where we can get some clean underwear or clean garments?’ and so we’re starting out year one hopefully with the day shelter.”

Washington said the shelter will open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and will offer breakfast and a snack.

“The second year end we can get enough funding in and fundraising so that we can do full-scale operation,” she said. “We could start out slowly with full-scale, but we wouldn’t be able to sustain that at this point, so we’re starting at the level that we can sustain through that year and build the program.”

Flowers said she felt it was a matter of prioritizing.

“I don’t think we can have a full and honest conversation about the needs of the city as it relates to affordable housing as well as the unhoused and then at the same time ask the people to support a tax that exists or to renew a tax and not set those priorities with that funding,” she said. “When we think about the amount of money that we have collected over the years for the sales and use tax, where there was a city partnership or effort or whatever you want to call it with the Go Forward nonprofit, to me this goes back to a lack of priority-setting, a lack of vision, a lack of transparency in being able to say to the people these are the issues we’re going to deal with on the front end and this is what you’re going to get on the back end.”

Flowers expressed her concern about the perceived lack of progress made by the city despite collecting Go Forward-sponsored taxes of more than $30 million, describing the situation as “unfathomable.” She emphasized that there were still no functional improvements or projects completed.

Washington stated that the city has made significant progress compared to previous years and emphasized the importance of completing all projects initiated during her administration.

On the topic of a sales tax, Flowers stressed the need for transparency in the transactions and contracts involving the tax dollars.

“When the Go Forward tax was defeated the last time in November, one of the things that I would do would start meeting with our citizens in town hall meetings to identify exactly what our vision is for our city as we move forward. Then once we put that in place, we’ll have to determine how we’ll pay and what money we will need.”

Washington said the city may need a sales tax, especially in the area of public safety, in order to sustain the police department.

“I do know that with the Go Forward tax, there were a lot of positive benefits from that tax that came in from other partners that partnered with us outside of the city of Pine Bluff because they were willing to come in and embrace us,” she said. “They said if a community is willing to tax itself we’re willing to support them, so we may have to do that to get as much growth as we need.”

Flowers, Washington discuss various Pine Bluff issues, solutions in segment of 'The Newsroom' | Arkansas Democrat Gazette (2024)
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