2011: A year marked by key debates at council


Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of stories selected by the staff of The Commercial as the Top 10 local news stories of 2011.

The Pine Bluff City Council conducted lively debates on a number of topics during 2011, including discussions about the natural gas franchise tax, reserve fund, the structure of Animal Control and raises for city employees.

In January, the council faced what its finance director characterized as the tightest budget in the city’s history, and had to make tough decisions about how to balance the budget.

After voting it down once, the council reversed its decision and enacted a change to the way that the natural gas franchise tax is levied. The change raised an additional $463,000 for the budget, mostly at the expense of large businesses. The move was hotly contested by the business community.

The council also enacted an unpopular storm water fee that added 62 cents to customers’ water bills.

Also in an effort to balance the 2011 budget, the council voted to waive two years’ worth of contributions to the city’s reserve fund to add $1 million to the budget.

The decision split the council, who later came back to pass an ordinance requiring most of the reserve fund to be kept in a separate account from the general fund so it could no longer be used to assist with operating costs at peak expense times of the year.

Later yet another vote was held concerning the reserve fund, this time allowing $400,000 to be taken back out of the separate account to prevent the city from facing cash-flow issues while meeting payroll.

Animal Control

Discussions over the structure and leadership of the Animal Control Department continued for most of the year and remain unresolved.

The department’s longtime director retired in February, and Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. placed Police Chief Brenda Davis-Jones over the department. When the city council was later advised of this decision, it did not sit well with some of the aldermen, who argued that Redus should have consulted the council before making the change.

Redus proposed a merger of two departments, which sparked public debate. When Redus’ proposal came before the council for a vote in September, it was rejected.

Redus placed his assistant, Ted Davis, over the department, a responsibility that has continued for the rest of the year. Redus has said he expects to make a recommendation to the council at the beginning of the new year.

Raises

Another hot-button issue before the city council surfaced late in the year as they discuss what kind of raises to give city employees in 2012.

Redus proposes a 4.1 percent raise for the majority of full-time city employees; an 8 percent raise for police sergeants and lieutenants; and a 5.5 percent raise for minimum wage employees.

Alderman Thelma Walker and Alderman Irene Holcomb propose a flat, $1,800 raise across the board for all city employees.

Both proposals would also apply to the salaries of elected officials.

Meanwhile, groups representing the police and fire departments have requested the council honor what they view as a campaign promise and spend $600,000 on raises for public safety employees. The groups say they campaigned for the passage of the sales tax after being told by city officials that it would include $600,000 for public safety raises.

The city finance department has calculated that Redus’ proposal would give public safety employees $572,628 in raises, while the $1,800 raise would give public safety employees $648,490 in raises.