The Pine Bluff City Council took advantage Monday of new-found breathing room and agreed to defer a vote on a resolution that would bring a pilot parolee skills-training program to town until their September 1 meeting.
Developed by Arkansas Community Corrections and State Sen. Stephanie Flowers, the Pine Bluff Housing and Community Re-invigoration Program would be funded by an $830,000 grant from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission over a two year period.
ACC Assistant Director of Reentry Services Kevin Murphy said Friday that waiting until September 1 to vote on the measure would have no effect on the program other than a two-week delay in the 60 to 90 day full roll-out window.
The program is intended to provide inmates released on parole and considered likely to re-offend with on-the-job demolition and materials salvage training as they make their way down a list of properties scheduled for demolition by the city.
More than a dozen Pine Bluff residents spoke either in support of or in opposition to the program.
Former Simmons First National Corporation Chairman and CEO J. Thomas May made a plea for the city’s future.
“We need to re-invest in our community,” May said. “I love Pine Bluff. If we’re going to make Pine Bluff what it should be we must take bold steps and eliminate the eyesores in our community. We must help ourselves because nobody else is going to. If we don’t it will only get worse. We owe it to our children and our grandchildren.”
Former Ward 1 Alderman Irene Holcomb also spoke in support of the measure.
“I would like us to compromise and make this happen,” Holcomb said. “I’m just asking for cooperation and compromise. I’m begging you to come together.”
Dianne Whittaker was leery of the program.
“We want you all to look at what is before you,” Whittaker said. “We are tired of being passed over for good things. We don’t want to be a dumping ground.”
Several aldermen expressed uneasiness with being asked to vote on such an expansive program with very little time to speak with residents and study program specifics.
“We had several speakers come to the podium and talk of a compromise,” Ward 4 Alderman George Stepps said. “What compromises are they talking about?”
Fellow Ward 4 Alderman Steven Mays said that in his meetings with city residents living near the state correctional facilities on the west side of town, residents told him they were promised a police substation that never came, as well as cameras that could be used to monitor criminal activity.
“You dropped the ball on the substation didn’t you mayor?” Mays asked Hollingsworth.
“Yes, I dropped the ball on getting a police substation installed on the west side,” Hollingsworth said. “I accept responsibility for that. We are going to get them a substation. It was voted on and it is true that I dropped the ball. I have spoken with [Pine Bluff Police] Chief [Jeff] Hubanks about what needs to be done to get one set up over there.”
Ward 3 Alderman Glen Brown said that the area’s Neighborhood Watch groups need to be kept more up-to-date on what the city is doing to keep residents safe.
“We need to speak to them more frequently,” Brown said.
Ward 1 Alderman Thelma Walker said that she had concerns over how the buildings to be torn down will be selected.
“I concur that this can be a great program for our city but it needs to be constructed right,” Walker said. “[Ward 2] Alderman [Wayne] Easterly had what I believe was a fair plan which involved randomly selecting names. But now we are told that it has to be a different way [using Department of Housing and Urban Development income guidelines].”
Ward 3 Alderman Bill Brumett said that the council should take the next two weeks to make sure that all questions are answered to the satisfaction of aldermen and their constituents.
“Let’s all try to be in one accord and get these issues settled before the next meeting,” Brumett said.
Hollingsworth said that the program is a gift that the city needs to accept.
“I drove around town last week after we decided that this was going to happen and went to the neighborhoods where some of the houses that have been on the condemned list the longest are located,” Hollingsworth said. “I saw children out playing in these lots and in these dilapidated, burned out structures. That is the new normal for these kids. I’m sorry, but as a city we haven’t done a very good job.”
The city council met in a special called meeting August 12 to hear about the program that was designed with Pine Bluff in mind according to ACC officials and Flowers.
Murphy said that the program participants will be housed in duplexes on the ACC property in Pine Bluff and supervised 24 hours per day by staff from the non-profit Mulligan Road.
“Their entire day will be structured,” Murphy said. “When they aren’t out working they will be in structured programming blocks that include substance abuse counseling, life-skills training and General Equivalency Degree courses.”
Flowers said that any public safety concerns because of the program are unwarranted.
“There are already people out walking the streets today who are on parole,” Flowers said. “The difference here is this group will be supervised at all times.”
The program will start with ten participants and will grow by ten every three months to a maximum of 40 participants.