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PINE BLUFF -- Pine Bluff council members approved a $53.4 million budget Monday night for the city that will provide across-the-board raises of 5% for public safety employees and 3% for all other city employees.

The budget passed by a 7-1 vote, with Council Member Ivan Whitfield casting the lone no vote because of his objection to the use of a ⅝-cent sales tax that will be used to fund Go Forward Pine Bluff.

Voters passed a tax in 2017 for the purpose of funding downtown revitalization efforts spearheaded by Go Forward Pine Bluff. In October, Whitfield sponsored a resolution that would have diverted $2.1 million a year of those tax proceeds to shore up department budgets and to put toward drainage needs. That resolution passed but was overturned two weeks later by a resolution introduced by Mayor Shirley Washington.

Whitfield is running against Washington for the Democratic nomination for mayor in 2020. Council Member Steven Mays is also running for mayor.

"There's nothing extra there for our children," Whitfield said, adding that the council isn't doing enough to support youth activities in the city. "We can build a library for our children, but we can't build a sports complex for our children."

Additional raises in the offices of City Clerk Loretta Whitfield and the City Collector Sharon Johnson raised eyebrows on the council. One employee in Whitfield's office was given an additional $4,000 raise in the 2020 budget, while two full-time employees in Johnson's office are budgeted for an additional $2,000 each and a part-time employee is budgeted for an additional $1,000 raise.

Several council members said they did not realize those raises had been approved and said they had told department heads under their purview that the only raises to be authorized were the 5% for public safety employees and 3% for all others.

"Several of my department heads asked me about this and I told them no because I thought we were only doing 3 percent raises," Council Member Joni Alexander said. "If I had known about this I probably would have argued in favor of those raises because that money was already in their budget. I think a lot of us just didn't know this was about to happen on top of the 3% raises."

Council Member Win Trafford made a motion to amend the 2020 budget by removing those additional raises, but the motion failed by a 4-3 vote. Trafford, Alexander and Glen Brown Jr. voted for the amendment. Whitfield, Lloyd Holcomb Jr., Bruce Lockett, and Donald Hatch voted against the amendment. Mays did not vote.

A negotiated agreement that was vetted through several committees provided an across-the-board salary increase of an additional $2,776 per officer for uniformed police officers. That money is offset by the reduction of 10 unfilled patrol officer positions, which reduced the number of uniformed police officer positions to 131.

The department, which has 118 uniformed officers, has struggled for years to maintain an adequate force to oversee the city.

When creating the municipal budget, all positions must be funded whether they are filled or not. Eliminating those positions freed up more than $300,000 that can go toward the raises. When factoring in the across-the-board 5% raise, the raises range from a total of 14.5% for entry-level patrol officers to 9% for the police chief.

Uniformed firefighters will receive a 5% pay raise in the new budget. Other city employees will receive 3%.

According to a recent Arkansas Municipal League salary survey, compensation for firefighters and police in Pine Bluff ranks near the bottom for cities of comparable size and ranks below many cities with far less population.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Pine Bluff's population has fallen from 55,085 people in 2000 to an estimated 42,271 people as of July 2018.

In one of its last fiscal acts in the current budget year, the City Council approved a budget adjustment Monday night of $241,633 to fund Christmas bonuses for all city employees. Under the terms of the budget adjustment, full-time employees will receive a bonus of $500 and part-time employees will receive a $250 bonus.

State Desk on 12/03/2019

Print Headline: PB council members OK $53.4M budget for '20

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