Pine Bluff’s City Council reached a compromise Monday night on a long-debated police department facilities plan, but in the final analysis it’s Mayor Debe Hollingsworth who maintains a final say as chief administrator.
City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott confirmed that while facilities funding is a function of the municipal government’s legislative branch, facility usage is an administrative determination.
At least for the time being, it appears the city will avoid possible perils of inaction in the face of approaching deadlines on bond issue-funded improvements at the civic center’s Joe Thomas Public Safety Building. The council was warned at its Sept. 3 meeting by Larry Matthews, chief of the economic and community development department, that the city is “down to one year” to complete the project as outlined in a bond-issue agreement that followed the voter-approved “Penny for Progress” sales tax hike in 2011.
Matthews cautioned that the city might not be able to secure a bond extension and if the renovation process wasn’t initiated this month, a reimbursement by the city on its bond loan might be necessitated, possibly negating future bond issues.
After being amended and re-amended in Monday’s session, a unanimously endorsed resolution directs the mayor to proceed with rehabilitation and renovation of the Thomas Building and a former Army National Guard armory at 1000 N. Myrtle St. — near Townsend Park, two Dollarway School District campuses and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff — while maintaining neighborhood offices and the revived bicycle patrol as police department priorities.
The legislation states that the department’s patrol division, currently headquartered in a Commerce Road warehouse, will be relocated to the armory, which the Army gave to the city. Meanwhile, a police substation will be established at The Pines shopping mall, which had offered to alter a 5,800-square foot space at its own expense and provide it rent-free for the first 36 of a 60-month agreement in exchange for the patrol division’s presence.
The resolution originally directed that the patrol section — following Hollingsworth’s negotiations with mall management — would move to The Pines while the armory would house assorted police “agencies and personnel.”
Alderwoman Thelma Walker — who lightly resisted Hadden-Scott’s stance on the facilities usage authority — has pledged that she will never support a patrol division shift to The Pines. Since Hollingsworth’s June veto of a split council decision to move the sector to the armory, Walker had maintained that modifications to the armory to enable any police functions there would be illegal.
Alderman Glen Brown voiced his opposition to the original measure, hinting that Hollingsworth and its co-sponsors — Aldermen Bill Brumett and Steven Mays — were motivated by their own interests.
“City government is not a private business,” Brown said.
Referencing Hollingsworth’s veto, which withstood an override effort, Brown likened renewed efforts to relocate the patrol division to The Pines to having “something shoved down our throat.”
He added, “I can’t support something that is personal business instead of city business.”
Brown said the council vote to move the segment to the armory shouldn’t have been “proudly vetoed” by the mayor.
“At that point, it could have been negotiated,” he said.
Aldermen Charles Boyd, Lloyd Holcomb Jr. and George Stepps concurred that a settlement was overdue. Brumett agreed and pointed out that amendments might be necessary. When Mays suggested pulling the measure so that it could be reworded for consideration at a future meeting, groans were audible from spectators and several council members.
Brown countered by suggesting that Matthews’ urgency on the issue may have been overstated.
“It’s our money,” Brown said of the bond issue, suggesting that “someone else will float the bonds.”
Brumett and Stepps informed Brown that the bond money “is already floated.”
The mayor repeated her opinions on the facilities’ usages, noting that flexibility should be maintained so that each location might be best employed after enhancements to the Thomas Building.
“What we’re supposed to be doing here is allocating funding,” she told the council. “Determining functions is an administrative decision.”
Stepps replied: “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Mays, who said he worries about city liabilities with having the patrol division at the armory because of its proximity to school vehicle and foot traffic, asked if Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks might address the council.
“We don’t want that,” Brown said twice.
Alderman Wayne Easterly left the council chambers before the meeting started. Easterly’s mother is hospitalized and seriously ill.