Archives

rward

I'm a journalist focused on government, policy, politics and people. I find what matters and bird dog it like nobody's business.

Connect with Author

robbie.ward@journalinc.com

  • Stories Written by Robbie Ward

    other_tupelo_policeBy Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – Tupelo’s plan for a proposed police headquarters achieved dual goals of costing taxpayers $10 million or less and likely meeting city needs for two decades.

    Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre and architect Will Lewis of JBHM Architects shared the most recent version for what could turn into city law enforcement’s new home, leading to the next phase of creating schematic designs and then advertising the project for bids in four months.

    “We’re comfortable with the programming we’ve developed and that we’ve stayed under $10 million,” Lewis said during a City Council work session Tuesday.

    This most recent price tag for the project could end a roller coaster of estimated costs that began with $8.9 million in February, then to $10.1 million and reached $11 million all within a month.

    Mayor Jason Shelton has said for more than a month he expected costs not to exceed $10 million and felt comfortable with proceeding with current plans.

    “It’s under $10 million and adequately meets all of the current needs and projected growth for the future,” Shelton said.

    The new plan at 38,150 square feet actually includes more square-footage than all previous versions made public, which doesn’t include the draft document estimating costs at up to $11 million.

    Police Chief Bart Aguirre said earlier Tuesday he didn’t think the new plan would match projected city needs two decades away but changed his mind after meeting with Lewis before the presentation to elected officials.

    “We’ve constantly added things,” Aguirre said after answering questions from the council. “It has some frills in it but not as much as earlier plans.”

    To trim costs, architects cut a kitchenette from a community room and shrunk space for the locker room areas and replaced enclosed office space for lower-ranking officers with partitioned cubicles. However, the new plan adds a gun-cleaning area and areas for fingerprinting and evidence collection.

    Funding for the new facility will likely come from a combination of issuing bonds and $1.5 million from asset forfeiture acquired from a partnership with federal and state authorities in a multiyear contraband cigarette sting. The operation also resulted in Tupelo gaining four acres of land where the new two-story facility will locate.

    Altogether, Tupelo has $5.3 million currently available for the police facility.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    MDOTBy Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – State officials convened community transportation providers spanning 14 counties throughout Northeast Mississippi in Tupelo for networking Tuesday, which included encouraging the area’s largest city to join the effort.

    Shirley Wilson, director of Mississippi Department of Transportation’s public transit division, said during a break from the three meetings at the Link Centre that she and staff held the meeting at the request of Tupelo and state AARP public transit supporters.

    The city waits to collect more proposals requested for businesses to operate a public transit system. City Hall has received a couple of proposals as some nonprofits consider whether to offer their services as possible options.

    The City Council could vote as early as May to accept a proposal for a year-long pilot program. Three council members have voiced solid support for the transit trial while four others have less enthusiasm.

    “We’re waiting on Tupelo,” Wilson said about the city’s decision to embrace public transit. “It’s really on them right now.”

    Balancing the quality of life benefits from public transit with increased taxpayer expenses remains the central debate among city leaders. Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton attended the morning meeting and continued to offer qualified supported for a shuttle system in the city, recognizing cost as important.

    “We have to look at what’s affordable and the best option for the city,” he said.

    Cost estimates aren’t known for the proposed Tupelo service. Transportation providers throughout the region and supporters for the service discussed needs, how to meet them and special concerns for the disabled during the day’s three sessions.

    Tupelo transportation committee volunteer Jim Casey and City Council President Nettie Davis used the meeting to network with transit professionals in other communities. They plan to speak with the manager of Oxford and Ole Miss’ transit system to gain insight for Tupelo’s potential opportunity.

    “We need to step forward and get this going,” Casey said.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    SHELTON

    SHELTON

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – Mayor Jason Shelton held a “soft rollout” for his city revitalization plan Monday.

    It include a handful of old and new ideas to improve declining neighborhoods, increase home ownership and potentially remove structures – including apartment complexes – no longer compatible with zoning laws.

    Shelton provided 10 approaches to revitalize blighted and threatened neighborhoods, some already in place and others not currently practiced in Mississippi.

    The mayor’s plan is a response to concern since the 2010 Census for slowed population growth in Tupelo as smaller, neighboring communities continue to grow.

    “These examples aren’t necessarily what we’re going to do,” Shelton told a City Hall crowd of neighborhood association presidents and other residents. “It’s what we’re looking at.”

    Shelton himself seemed uncertain about some ideas as he shared them for the first time. Specifically, he announced interest in amortization, a zoning tool used to remove buildings and other structures in areas where zoning prohibits them. Currently, structures in place prior to zoning changes have permission to remain. This proposed option could require, for example, removal of apartment complexes along Ida Street after a period of time set by city leadership.

    “I don’t mind saying in public I’m not sure where I am on that right now,” Shelton said.

    It’s not clear if this practice currently exists in Mississippi. Another idea in Shelton’s plan is L3Cs, short for low-profit limited liability companies, that often work with communities in solving social problems. Currently, these aren’t used anywhere in Mississippi and would require the Legislature to pass special legislation before they could operate.

    Other ideas shared include existing tools, such as renewing neighborhood pride and encouraging grants for first-time homebuyers through the Mississippi Home Corporation, a state-created company to encourage more homeowners.

    Tupelo has wrestled with declining neighborhoods for more than two decades as city leaders responded in limited fashion with limited success. The last city administration identified neighborhoods losing appeal and value as a top concern and funded $2.9 million for the West Jackson Street redevelopment project.

    Shelton said issues facing the city’s neighborhoods have developed through decades and require patience and resolve.

    “We just have to roll up our sleeves and get this done,” he said.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com Travel has been reduced to one lane in both east- and west-bound lanes of Highway 78 as work continues on the overpass for the Northern Loop connecting Coley Road to North Gloster Street.

    Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com
    Travel has been reduced to one lane in both east- and west-bound lanes of Highway 78 as work continues on the overpass for the Northern Loop connecting Coley Road to North Gloster Street.

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – Citizens can try to convince the city to build a new street in Tupelo by simply filling out an online survey as community input is sought for short- and long-range transportation plans.

    The city’s Major Thoroughfare Program wants citizen input to help decide which streets need improvements and where new ones belong as part of the Tupelo Comprehensive Transportation Plan, intended to help guide transportation efforts in the city for the next decade.

    “It’s asking for input for where you see traffic congestion,” Greg Pirkle, MTP chairman, said of the survey. “It’s specific with helping us make a presentation to citizens of Tupelo but also broad to help make recommendations for as many projects as we can.”

    Take the survey

    Survey findings and other data collected could also help the city determine other projects beyond the scope of the MTP.

    The 29-section questionnaire will help determine how areas needing traffic improvement rank in the community’s collective mind. Residents without Internet access can find paper copies of the survey at City Hall.

    The MTP’s current phase is entering the remaining two years of the five-year plan approved by voters in 2011 using 10 mills of taxes to fund about $4 million annually in road improvements.

    Every five years since 1991, Tupelo voters have decided by overwhelming margins to support the additional tax to fund street construction and widening projects the city otherwise couldn’t afford.

    The next vote will occur in 2016, leading the MTP to contract with an consulting engineering firm Civil Link to help gauge public support for projects. Current efforts include the $23.4 million Northern Loop that will connect Coley Road to Barnes Crossing Road. Remaining parts of that project include bridges over the Natchez Trace and Highway 78, due for completion in June and December respectively.

    This summer, the second phase of the $12.5 million East Main Street widening project will begin. This work on East Main Street will stretch from Elizabeth Street to Veterans Boulevard and extend north to the Elvis Presley’s Birthplace. Federal funding of $2.3 million will contribute bike paths and sidewalks to the enhancement effort expected to take 18 months.

    Pirkle points to less traffic congestion in much of the city as proof of the MTP’s success and reason for the public to add ideas about what could happen next.

    “They’ve always approved and appreciated the roads we’ve built,” he said. “For it to continue, we need to have public buy-in and let them know we’re listening to the projects they want,” he said.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com The apartments at West Jackson Street and Joyner Avenue that were purchased by the city to remove blight could potentially become condos. Requests for proposals from developers interested in the property are due May 16.

    Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com
    The apartments at West Jackson Street and Joyner Avenue that were purchased by the city to remove blight could potentially become condos. Requests for proposals from developers interested in the property are due May 16.

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – It’s been eight months without visible changes to Tupelo’s West Jackson Street, giving the appearance that the $2.9 million city redevelopment project to improve the blighted neighborhood has stalled.

    But project leaders believe that in spite of snags along the way, with some tweaks, the effort to remove crime and rundown property that threatens the high-traffic area’s future vitality as well as nearby middle-class neighborhoods can stay on track.

    Plans discussed last fall called for 27 property purchases in December along West Jackson Street and Chapman Drive, areas of high crime and safety concerns in recent years. That same plan called for acquiring the properties this year through September as tenants in rental property found other places to live.

    These efforts fit into an overall master plan created by local architects in late 2013 that includes adding and improving infrastructure of city sidewalks, underground utilities and landscaping on two streets in the area west of Gloster Street to Joyner Avenue.

    Ultimately, the intent is to replace blighted properties with desirable, attractive houses geared toward young families and professionals in the $90,000 to $120,000 price range.

    Most residents of the area have heard of the redevelopment project but are waiting to see improvements actually happen. The last sign of change, demolition of two West Jackson Street houses in August, hasn’t been followed by any additional demolition or other work.

    The timetable for the real estate deals planned for last December keeps stretching out. Board members of the Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit working on the project for the city, didn’t anticipate property owners unwilling to sell houses mostly in the $17,000 to $20,000 range.

    NDC started with more than $1.7 million for buying property, demolition, reconfiguring the land for new development and marketing the project to private builders.

    But slow-going on buying houses has caused a snag.

    “The architect had plans for a big dream but we weren’t able to get all of the properties,” Duke Loden, NDC board president and a commercial real estate broker, said last week. “So, we’ll do it in segments.”

    NDC’s board voted Wednesday to demolish five more houses within a month, a move intended to provide assurance that the project remains on track.

    While the project from the outside seems to have slowed, NDC’s actions show a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations to advance the redevelopment. However, some decisions facing NDC remain uncertain and detailed plans have not yet been made public.

    To date, NDC has purchased 16 properties and has options to buy on six others, Loden said. All but one of the houses bought are rental properties. Four NDC board members are still working to convince other property owners to sell. However, some owners see little incentive to sell real estate they value higher than the city will pay.

    This setback has forced NDC to regroup and go back to the planning stages. In the next month, a revised master plan will reflect that inability to buy all houses identified for the project.

    Instead of buying longer sections of land to use for the project, NDC will strategically buy three or four houses in a row.

    “We’re not going to force out anybody and we’re not going to pay an outrageous price either,” Loden said.

    However, likely properties acquired for the project should number close to 27, the number NDC first named as likely acquisitions.

    Beyond buying property, plans related to two apartment complex units have changed, or at least evolved.

    An empty apartment complex and former crime magnet at West Jackson Street and Clayton Avenue was originally planned for razing, but NDC has backed away from that idea.

    First, the structural soundness of the complex persuaded NDC to consider it for possible condos. Now, board members have decided they’ll accept ideas from developers who have voiced interest in the property that could include keeping or removing the building. Requests for proposals from developers interested in the property are due May 16.

    Among project requirements is a maximum of two residential rental units. Developers also can use connecting city-owned property at 1105 West Jackson St. as part of the project.

    City-owned land farther down on Clayton Avenue which housed the former Blair Street apartment complex no longer seems destined for a park or other green space as first envisioned by the city.

    “Neither our plan nor the city’s plan has a park there,” Loden said. “We’d rather have houses there.”

    NDC still anticipates a walking trail that would connect the area to future sidewalks on Joyner Avenue that follow to nearby Rob Leake City Park.

    Mayor Jason Shelton has invited builders and developers to City Hall on Monday for a meeting to encourage consideration of projects in the city limits. NDC members will attend hoping to attract interest in the West Jackson redevelopment area. After all, the city will provide underground utilities, sidewalks and landscaping at no cost to developers.

    Even with delays and a change of plans, Loden said he still feels confident in the plan to create attractive housing opportunities in an area that has been a risk for owner-occupied real estate.

    “I think it will be as much of a success as any of the city officials or we envisioned,” he said.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    Locations below show known properties acquired by the Tupelo City Council and NDC for neighborhood redevelopment. Click the top right corner of the map for full-screen view, and zoom in and out of the map with controls on bottom right.

    MDOTBy Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – From public leaders to public school students, state transportation officials extend an open invitation for regional transportation discussions Tuesday.

    Mississippi Department of Transportation leaders request elected leaders, private and public employees, students, business leaders, the general public and nonprofit organizations attend any of the three “Community Transit on the Move” meetings at the Link Centre Reception Hall.

    Discussion times are 10 to 11:30 a.m., 12:15 to 1:30 p.m.; and 4:30 to 6 p.m.

    Topics will involve benefits of using community transportation, partnerships with non-transportation providers, possible coordination and connecting groups throughout the community who may have interest in public transportation.

    Along with representatives from MDOT’s Public Transit Division, state and local AARP staff and volunteers will attend. The two entities have partnered for multiple meetings in recent months to discuss public transportation opportunities available for the city.

    “We hope the public will attend these discussions to share thoughts on public transportation needs in Tupelo and the region,” said Ronda Gooden, an AARP Mississippi spokeswoman.

    The city of Tupelo currently is waiting to receive proposals from businesses interested in providing public transit options. A transportation study a few years ago showed significant need for the service in the area but funding issues have caused city leaders to drag their feet.

    Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton has called public transportation a key issue but wants to find an affordable option.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    DAVIS

    DAVIS

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – Lee County Library will turn into a destination for outdoor, hiking and other nature enthusiasts next month as one of the nation’s premiere hikers will pause long enough to join a literary club including Alice Walker, Shelby Foote, Willie Morris and Pat Conroy.

    An intercontinental hiker with more than 12,000 miles behind her will deliver the 41st annual Helen Foster Lecture at 7 p.m. May 14, a free event open to the public.

    Jennifer Pharr Davis found time between hikes on six continents to write books about her hiking experiences, trail guide books and “Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph,” her 2013 memoir detailing endurance, faith and love that helped her break the Appalachian Trail’s overall speed record in 2011. She averaged 47 miles per day to conquer the 2,181-mile trail in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes.

    Three years earlier, Pharr Davis broke the Appalachian Trail women’s record for the fastest hike through the 14-state outdoor journey.

    Currently, she continues a goal of hiking in all 50 states as she speaks to groups in libraries and other settings along the way.

    “It’s my mission to get people out on the trails,” Pharr Davis said.

    Jeff Tomlinson, director of the Lee-Itawamba Library System, said the hiker and author will bring a love for outdoors relevant to the community and sense of adventure. He said hikers and readers share key traits.

    “They’ve got to be curious people,” Tomlinson said. “That sort of mind-set is the kind of person who explores things.”

    The lecture series is named after Helen Foster, a former Lee County librarian and board of trustees member, to fill a community need without using regular library funds. Video and audio recordings of previous lecture speakers can be checked out at the library.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    This is the 4th article in this series. If you haven’t read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 yet, check them out.

    TUPELO – Lee County prosecutor James Moore plans to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing related to the North Lee County Water Association, a nonprofit organization that recently fired a whistleblowing employee for disclosing the company’s 2013 audit, a public document.

    NOBLE

    NOBLE

    Moore, himself a member of the nonprofit cooperative water provider, said information provided in the audit and additional information he has learned warrants a criminal investigation.

    Sonny Noble, 31, was fired Friday after the Daily Journal published financial mismanagement, non-compliance with a $1.2 million federal loan and broken laws revealed in the company’s fiscal year 2013 audit.

    The prosecutor decided to investigate activities North Lee after Noble shared information the fired outside maintenance supervisor has collected for months.

    “He’s come to see me and about some of the concerns he has in connection with the audit and other things he sees going on there,” Moore said. “After meeting with him, I think they’re worth looking into.”

    North Lee board president Terry Anderson and board attorney Bill Beasley did not respond Tuesday to Daily Journal requests for comment.

    Noble gained notoriety in 2011 after after whistleblowing on corruption and criminal activity related to the water association. Employees worked on the clock on a NLCWA board member’s property, and then-general manager Dan Durham falsified federal water quality reports and received a federal court conviction and three years probation.

    All board members resigned then, leading to a new group of trying to correct shady behavior and questionable decision-making.

    However, the 2013 audit showed the nine-person board hasn’t corrected potentially illegal actions of not paying employees and has unaccounted for money of up to $14,164. Noble also reported current North Lee manager Jim Banker purchased a truck for his use without formal board approval.

    The audit questioned the water association’s purchase of a high-milage vehicle. Records show Banker drives a 2008 Chevrolet Silverado that listed 173,877 miles when purchased; however, paperwork indicates the vehicle’s odometer does not reflect actual miles.

    Recently concerns with NLCWA emerged as the water association continues negotiations related to ceding territory served in Tupelo’s recently annexed areas. North Lee also has received approval for a $8.9 million federal loan for water system improvements, but Tupelo objects have limited progress for drilling six new water wells and installation of more tanks.

    Noble has said he will push for a vote among the water association’s 4,260 members to return him to work. For a vote to happen, about 230 association members must sign a petition calling for the action during a special meeting.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    This is the 4th article in this series. If you haven’t read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 yet, check them out.

     

    town_tupelo_greenBy Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – The City Council reluctantly agreed to enter a property management contract for an apartment complex purchased by the city last week.

    Council members supported with a 4-3 vote the contact likely valued at $14,600 for 90 days with TRI Inc. Realtors, although the council didn’t specify the length of the contract.

    No council member seemed thrilled to obligate city money to the contract to handle paying employees, rent collection, maintenance and upkeep and other needed duties at the low-income, 220-unit Azalea Gardens purchased for $2.1 million.

    The city bought the property mired in bankruptcy court for years to try to eliminate crime and safety concerns associated with the complex.

    Council members discussed three months being the term of the contract but didn’t specify during Tuesday’s vote. The agreement requires a 30-day cancellation notice between the city and TRI.

    City leaders learned Friday when it bought the 7.8-acre property from a South Carolina-based development company that no agreement existed to continue property management.

    Some details related to the city’s real estate venture still seem shaky. Tupelo Chief Operations Officer Don Lewis said he’s not quite sure if five employees at the apartment complex should receive paychecks this week or next.

    Either way, Mayor Jason Shelton said apartment employees should feel confident they’ll receive paychecks on time.

    Councilmen Willie Jennings of Ward 7, Markel Whittington of Ward 1 and Jim Newell of Ward 3 voted against the agreement.

    Newell opposed the agreement based on what he perceived as a conflict of interest between the city, TRI and the Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit redevelopment company working with the city on real estate improvements.

    City leaders anticipate turning Azalea Gardens over to NDC at some point for a yet-to-be-determined redevelopment. TRI owner Ellen Short serves on NDC’s board of directors.

    “In my mind, that’s a severe conflict of interest, or at least a perceived conflict,” Newell said.

    Tupelo city attorney Ben Logan said no conflict of interest exits with the city approving this contract. However, NDC will have to determine if a conflict of interest exists if TRI continues to manage the property after the nonprofit takes over redevelopment efforts for the city.

    The city could take six months to a year to determine exact plans for the property, although Shelton has said he does not anticipate demolition of all apartment units.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    COCHRAN

    COCHRAN

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – Six-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s re-election campaign reported today raising $1.7 million from January through March and having about $1.5 million on hand.

    Cochran’s Campaign Manager Kirk Sims reported this information during a conference call this morning and said he will provide actual campaign finance forms today to news organizations.

    “We’re really pleased with the outpouring of support throughout the state,” he said. “The amount of money raised in Mississippi is over $1 million just in this quarter.”

    Cochran and GOP primary opponent Chris McDaniel and other candidates for U.S. House and Senate races must file quarterly campaign finance reports today to meet Federal Election Commission deadlines.

    Bureaucratic reporting rules prevent the FEC from immediately providing campaign finance information to the public.

    The Daily Journal has requested McDaniel’s campaign provide the same campaign finance information as Cochran’s campaign discloses today. As each candidate’s campaign provides FEC documents, the Daily Journal will post them online.

    Cochran’s total raised during this election cycle is $2.9 million, Sims said.

    Both Cochran and McDaniel receive significant campaign money from out-of-state individuals and political action committees.

    McDaniel’s campaign previously reported raising $487,802 from October through December with $315,390 cash on hand. However, this was after the campaign reported inflated contributions explained by problems with software used to track campaign money.

    During the same reporting period, Cochran reported raising $333,885.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    Read more online and in Wednesday’s Journal.

    FEC documents provided by Cochran’s campaign