Shrinking population, revenues create growing problems


Pine Bluff is seemingly in a free fall as the nation’s fastest shrinking city, and its troubles mount at a distressing rate as its decline excels.

Various options are being considered to help stop the bleeding associated with a projected 2013 city revenue shortfall of between roughly $391,000 and $692,000, but none of the possible remedies will be pain-free. Doing nothing, however, could prove crippling — or worse.

“We need money from everywhere,” city Finance Director Steve Miller told the council’s ways and means committee, other attending aldermen and Mayor Debe Hollingsworth in a Tuesday afternoon meeting.

“I agree,” said the mayor.

Once the state’s second- but now its 10th-largest city, Pine Bluff has endured probably more than its legitimate share of negative publicity over the past 25 years, including a one-time ranking as the country’s least-desirable city in which to live, and several recognitions for its crime statistics. The city has topped some past national charts in the number of murders and automobile thefts.

CNN recently reported that the U.S. Census Bureau had disclosed that Pine Bluff’s estimated 1.5-percent population slide was the country’s biggest loss during a 12-month period that ended on July 1, 2012. But the slip is even more pronounced over a 20-year period from 1990 to 2010, when the count tumbled roughly 14 percent, from 57,100 to 49,083.

There are multiple factors behind the dive.

The city has a troublesome image problem. Deserved or not, the fact remains that Pine Bluff has suffered an array of setbacks.

Steadily declining enrollment, some failures in satisfying state and national standards, and actual and implied scandal have taken a negative toll on education. Housing woes abound, an occurrence that goes hand-in-hand with the crime problem.

Arson has almost become customary. In 2009, the Pine Bluff Metropolitan Statistical Area — which includes Jefferson, Cleveland and Lincoln counties — was rated by a national press service as the nation’s most dangerous. In the same year, Pine Bluff was included in a ranking of the country’s 10-most impoverished cities, a strong indication that poverty likely contributes to criminal activity.

Unemployment is high. The February rate was 11.8 percent, the highest in the state, which had a 7.2 percent count. In addition to an overall lack of jobs, the city and Jefferson County have had little good fortune in attracting new industries and businesses that have been able to thrive in the lean economy. More and more jobs, if not eliminated, have become part-time with little if any benefits added to typically low salaries.

Meanwhile, the city and Jefferson County have in recent years been rocked by several instances of political corruption.

If there’s a silver lining in the midst of the storm, it’s a noticeable easing of racial tensions among blacks — who comprise over 70 percent of the population — and whites. Most citizens have apparently decided that progress isn’t possible without concerted, unified effort.

“I think our problems have actually brought us together because everyone wants to help ensure Pine Bluff will be a better place for our children and grandchildren,” Hollingsworth said. “It’s about people, period.”

The mayor said she and other city leaders would, of course, like to see population growth. But at this point, simply holding steady would provide at least a measure of satisfaction — and financial assurance.

“We didn’t get to this point overnight, and we won’t be able to devise a fix overnight,” Hollingsworth said. “Our No. 1 challenge is to contend with our realities while attempting to curb and then reverse this trend. And it’s achievable with the character of the people here. I don’t know of any location that doesn’t have problems, and I’ll admit that we certainly have some. But there’s a lot more that’s good about Pine Bluff than there is bad, and that’s what we’ll be building on.”

Miller noted in Tuesday’s meeting that the city “is incredibly dependent on sales tax revenue,” which has naturally lessened in accordance with declining population and retail business. From 2008 through 2012, the city’s sales tax proceeds fell annually, from a high of $7,489,559 to $6,915,378. The county sales tax — which also produces revenue for the city — spiked at $6,441,335 in 2010 but then plunged to $5,778,284 in 2012. The respective, projected 2013 returns from the two levies are $6,846,660 and $5,787,688.

Miller said if those estimates hold true, the city will be “down almost a million dollars in combined” revenues “for the past six years.”

The anticipated revenue decline this year represents a 1.4-percent slump from 2012, while the city’s 2013 budget reflects a 2.5-percent hike over 2012’s. Miller said a predicted financial shortfall of about 4 percent is figured by adding the revenue loss and budget increase.

“I just regret that our city is facing this financial crisis, and I think it could have been avoided, at least in large part,” Hollingsworth said. “These revenue declines are nothing new, so why haven’t the city’s recent budgets been reflective of that instead of continuing to be put together with unrealistic spending increases? I’m having to help adjust a budget that I didn’t have anything to do with formulating. If I had, it would have better followed recent trends so we could better operate within our means. A city budget isn’t a wish list. It needs to be handled like a business plan, focusing on income and expenses. Our citizens deserve better.”

His council mates and Hollingsworth agree with senior Alderman Bill Brumett that at least $500,000 needs to be trimmed from the current budget of roughly $27 million. To initiate the reduction process, Hollingsworth will be asking city department heads to consider steps that would condense the divisions’ expenses by at least 2 percent. The mayor said there will be a “quick and strict deadline” for responses, so that suggestions can be readied for discussion in a second committee meeting on the matter, scheduled for May 7.

Other “recovery options” presented by Miller included a hiring freeze, employee furloughs, consolidating departmental expenses on services and supplies, reducing a funding transfer for street overlay and maintenance work by $100,000, cutting the contribution to the city’s emergency reserve by $150,000 and a one-time reduction of $1.357 million in reserves from the five-eighths cent city sales tax approved by voters in 2011 and earmarked for assorted improvements through a series of bond issues.

“None of this is pleasant for any of us,” Hollingsworth said. “But it’s something that has to be done. We just need to roll up our sleeves, get busy and stay with it until we’re at a point where we can start moving ahead again.”