By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Tupelo Water & Light Director Johnny Timmons knows he has a lot to do before he can make believers out of the 2,500 new city residents.
He knows many of the residents in the 16 square miles of annexed area, formally approved by the state Supreme Court in August, have little faith the city will follow through with everything promised. While other city departments have worked to integrate city services into the annexed areas, Timmons’ department has the biggest challenge – providing water and sanitation.
On Thursday, he signed loan papers for more than $21 million on behalf of the city. Now the city can begin creating the infrastructure necessary for providing residents in the outer areas of Tupelo like Indian Hills, Deer Park and Auburn in Ward 5 with the same services provided to residents closer to Main Street.
“They’re citizens of Tupelo now,” Timmons said. “And they should have these services.”
Engineering and other preparations started about a month ago, before the city even received approval for the 1.75 percent loan due during a 20-year period. “We were so confident this time that we’d be approved for the loan, we had engineering work in process while this was still in court,” Timmons said.
This annexation was protested by Lee County, Plantersville and Saltillo in court, and a November 2010 court ruling sided with Tupelo. The new residents will begin paying city taxes in 2014. The annexation is the second in Tupelo’s history, with the first in 1989.
With a schedule for water and sewer work extending into mid-2015, Timmons said the sooner work could start, the sooner new residents would receive services.
Before installation of infrastructure can begin, engineering and any legal agreements for easements must be done.
A schedule on the city’s website has construction beginning in annexed areas in the eastern part of the city in April and continuing westward until all services are complete.
“That schedule is going to be pretty close,” he said.
With engineering work complete for the Auburn community for water and sewer and sewer engineering complete in Deer Park, projects could begin going to bid to select a contractor in a few months.
While residents wait for services, they must now comply with zoning regulations and ordinances that don’t exist outside of the city. Pat Falkner, Tupelo city planner, said existing developments and property that would be in violation of Tupelo zoning ordinances are grandfathered in, unless changing them wouldn’t be a hardship. An example of this includes prohibiting commercial equipment, such as 18-wheelers, from parking in residential areas.
In annexed areas along the “northern loop,” part of the Major Thoroughfare Program expansion, commercial zoning will require businesses built to city codes and city inspectors signing off before they can open.
Tupelo police and fire departments are already providing services and building relationships with the newest city residents who are used to dealing with the Lee County Sheriff’s Department and volunteer fire departments.
Police have responded to about 45 calls in newly annexed areas out of the 6,000 to 7,000 monthly calls citywide. These calls range from welfare checks to domestic disturbances to trees in the road. Tupelo Police Maj. Jackie Clayton said the annexation led to an additional patrolman and police car each shift.
While anything in public service is subject to change, Clayton said the transition has been fairly smooth.
“We weren’t promising something we couldn’t deliver,” he said. “We said that we would provide police protection.”
While the Tupelo Fire Department also has extended fire protection to the annexed areas, residents there continue to face an issue of double taxation duplication of services. Before entering the city limits, Lee County property owners pay 4 mills of tax for rural fire protection. That’s $40 for every $100,000 of taxable value.
When property owners in the annexed areas begin paying Tupelo city taxes, they could face paying for fire services from both rural volunteer fire departments and the Tupelo Fire Department.
David Homan, who serves as Lee County’s fire coordinator and chief of the Shannon Volunteer Fire Department, said no effort has been made for the city and volunteer fire departments to come to an agreement.
“Somebody needs to be talking to somebody,” he said. “I’m not aware of any communications.”
Signs of change are popping up in annexed areas, though. After working with Lee County E911, Tupelo officials have completed changing names of annexed streets to a new city addressing system.
Sid Russell, director of Tupelo Public Works, said new signs are up and the city continues to upgrade a few streets that require immediate attention, specifically Frog Meadow Lane and Prairie Cove in the western part of the city.
“Overall, streets in the annexed area are in pretty good condition,” Russell said.