ANALYSIS: Annexation trial draws ‘vultures’

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Amid the myriad details of the city’s annexation trial has emerged a consistent pattern: City attorneys construct their case, opponents’ attorneys then dissect and denounce it.
The pattern repeats regardless of the witness or the area of annexation about which he or she testifies.
Opponents so far have attacked Tupelo’s choice of territories to acquire, the methods it used to select them, its plan to provide them municipal services and its ability to afford it.
Like vultures on a lame animal, they pick apart each shred of evidence until nothing remains but bone.
If only it were that interesting. The annexation proceedings, which began March 29 and will last several more weeks, unfold more like C-SPAN than “Wild Kingdom.”
The back-and-forth at Lee County Chancery Court often is tedious and redundant, but it reveals much about the city’s intentions for the 16.15 square miles it wants.
Tupelo promises to connect newly annexed areas to city services like sewer and, where applicable, water. It will run large water lines to areas without sufficient water capacity or pressure for city fire protection.
Streets will get fire hydrants and lights. Residents will get police and fire protection. Areas will be zoned for planning, codes will be enforced and new construction will meet high standards.
In return, Tupelo will collect property taxes from the roughly 2,800 residents and two dozen businesses located in the six areas eyed for city expansion.
It also will receive utility payments from new sewer – and potentially water – customers.
For nearly a decade, Tupelo has planned its outward growth and tried twice during that time to make it happen. Both those efforts were unsuccessful. The current attempt is the first to reach trial since Tupelo’s last annexation in 1989, and thus its most promising chance of success.
But opponents abound. Lee County and the cities of Plantersville and Saltillo all contest Tupelo’s proposed expansion and each have attorneys representing them in court.
More than 100 of the residents in the six proposed annexation areas also oppose the move. Many of them testified Monday in court.
Ultimately, Judge Edward C. Prisock will decide if Tupelo gets to annex all or part of its chosen territories after the jury-less trial concludes. So far, the judge has offered no hint of opinion on the matter. He sits aloft at the bench, expressionless, as he listens intently to the testimony.
Attorneys on both sides have done their best to woo him. But their styles vary dramatically.
City attorneys, led by Guy Mitchell and John Hill from Tupelo law firm Mitchell McNutt & Sams, let their witnesses and documents do most of the explaining. The white-haired duo hasn’t yet drawn conclusions for the court, raised their voices, or made powerful “aha” statements.
The county’s head attorney, Chad Mask from Jackson law firm Carroll Warren & Parker, is another story. Mask is young and animated and often paces the courtroom while intensifying his pitch. Whoever the witness, whatever the data, Mask flips the city’s own evidence to support his opposing points.
Those points often lead to an “aha” moment when Mask strongly implies a fundamental flaw in the city’s annexation plans. Then he demands the witness agree with him, a process that often requires some badgering.
Some of Mask’s points bear serious consideration: Why will Tupelo spend $25 million extending municipal services to newly annexed areas when some inside the existing city limits still have none?
Or: Why is much of the proposed annexed area located in difficult-to-develop flood plains if the main point of annexation is to gain more easily developable land?
Other arguments seem trivial and contrived: It’s unfair to pay for annexation through bonds because bonds are reimbursed with taxpayer money and not all taxpayers will benefit from annexation.
Taxpayers fund a host of municipal projects and services from which they receive no direct benefit, argued city clerk Kim Hanna. That’s just the way it works sometimes.
Or: The city faces financial catastrophe if it annexes because its sales tax collections have dipped since the recession.
Yet, argued Hanna and Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris, the city is in strong financial shape with $20 million in a rainy day fund and other revenues sources sitting untapped. Plus, sales tax collections are beginning to pick up.
And the city has fared better than others during the recession, losing 4 percent of its sales tax collections in 2009 versus 6.5 percent each in Biloxi, Hattiesburg and Jackson.
Mask isn’t the only opposing attorney; Jason Shelton represents Plantersville and Jason Herring and Henderson Jones represent Saltillo. All three have followed Mask in their questioning of city witnesses.
But their contentions generally are limited to the proposed annexation areas nearest their client cities.
In any case, by the time these attorneys start their routines, Mask has exhausted most of the arguments – as well as the witness – leaving little left but the clean, white bone.

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.