Capital budget sparks debate

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JENNINGS

JENNINGS

By Robbie Ward

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Stunned councilman Willie Jennings accused city officials of “underhanded” actions before walking out of an $18.1 million capital budget discussion Wednesday.

Jennings said he had waited too long for a city-funded splash pad in south Tupelo just to see it disappear from the city’s capital budget stretching into 2018.

The Ward 7 councilman has made clear for more than a year his desire for funding a $400,000 water feature at Theron Nichols Park. During January discussions, Jennings wanted the spray park built this year, not in the 2016 fiscal year, which was when the city planned one for Rob Leake City Park.

The proposed budget discussed by the City Council Wednesday showed a spray park listed for Rob Leake City Park for Fiscal Year 2015 but nowhere else.

“Theron Nichols was talked about before you even came into office,” Jennings told Ward 2 Councilman Lynn Bryan.

Mayor Jason Shelton and Chief Operations Officer Don Lewis explained a possible community center and storm shelter at a cost of $1.3 million scheduled for the 2016 fiscal year replaced the splash park.

“Somebody did some underhanded stuff,” Jennings said, and left a few minutes later.

The capital budget includes items like new fire trucks, a planned $10 million police headquarters and other expensive projects and remains separate from the city’s $32 million general fund budget. State law requires the city to approve the Fiscal Year 2015 budget by Sept. 15.

While no other council member joined Jennings to support the park addition, they spoke in unison earlier for city street upgrades.

Tupelo’s worst-rated streets, ranked by Public Works, will cost $3.5 million to repair. However, the proposed capital budget allocates just more than $1 million to street overlays and other improvements.

Council members seemed ready to draw $2 million over two years from the $18.5 million in reserves to eliminate bumpy rides.

“If we’re taking about separating our wants from our needs – the streets are needs,” Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington said.

Shelton told council members not to rush into spending the city’s rainy day fund for street repairs. The council responded by directing the city’s finance department to provide funding alternatives.

Public works director Chuck Williams said expanding the scope of street work would likely require outsourcing a large part of the work. The department’s street crew consists of six employees who usually upgrade $800,000 to $1 million worth of streets annually.

“We can do it,” Williams said after the meeting. “We just need some help.”

robbie.ward@journalinc.com