City's annexation transition on hold following appeal

By EMILY LECOZ / NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The freshly cranked engine of Tupelo’s annexation machine was stalled last week when opponents of the city’s expansion appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.
Lee County and the city of Saltillo will fight a chancellor’s Nov. 22 decision granting Tupelo some 16 square miles of unincorporated land. Their actions stopped the 30-day countdown that would have made annexation official and allowed the city to extend its boundaries and services to some 2,500 residents.
That process was set to begin by Christmas and municipal leaders already had started working toward it when the appeals were announced Monday by Lee County and Tuesday by Saltillo.
The town of Plantersville, which also objected to annexation, has until Dec. 22 to file its appeal.
Opponents actions caught some city officials off guard; few had anticipated an appeal because the judge’s opinion seemed to leave little room for doubt.
“In hoping there wouldn’t be an appeal, and in anticipation of our duties and responsibilities, our planning department had already begun … prioritizing our efforts as far as bringing the annexed areas up to city code and city standards,” said Mayor Jack Reed Jr.
On each of the 12 factors of reasonableness needed to prove an annexation has merit, specially appointed Judge Edward C. Prisock found evidence to support Tupelo’s plan.
And in some cases, he found the evidence to be “substantial.”
Prisock either dismissed opponents’ varied objections or stated that they didn’t provide enough evidence to support them.
“When we heard the judge had ruled on it, we got very excited and felt like we needed to get to work,” said BJ Teal, director of the Department of Development Services. “The first thing we were doing was looking at zoning in the new annexation areas, and getting prepared to update all the boundaries and making sure all our lines were correct. We were geared up, ready to go, so we just have to put it down for awhile.”
Appealing the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court could took take a year or longer, and Tupelo will not be able to proceed with annexation until the higher court makes a decision.
City attorney Guy Mitchell said it’s doubtful the Supreme Court will overturn the case.
“The opposition would have to show that (Prisock) was manifestly wrong and the Supreme Court would have to find that there was no evidence to support the conclusion that he makes,” Mitchell said, “and since he said the evidence was complete and compelling, they will have a very difficult time in any reversal, in my opinion.”
County officials see it differently: “I think we stand a good chance of having the whole thing overturned,” said Lee County Board of Supervisors President Darrell Rankin.
Rankin said they’re appealing based largely on four factors on which they think the judge erred: the court’s jurisdiction to hear the case; the credibility of the city’s expert witness; the potential for double-taxation to annexed residents for fire protection; and the legitimacy of the city’s services-and-facilities plan, which it would implement if annexation is successful.
If the higher court upholds Prisock’s ruling, the city will be able to annex 30 days after its decision.
It will cost Tupelo about $25 million over the next five years to fully implement services and facilities to the newly annexed areas.
Costs include hiring five new public works employees, four new police officers, three new firefighters, one new building inspector and extending water, sewer, street lights and other services to the new areas.
Reed said some people will be upset by the delay.
“I’ve had several citizens who were going to be in the annexed areas say, ‘I’m so excited. When will we be recycling door to door?’” Reed said. “I had somebody else call and say they were excited about getting street lights and when can we expect that to happen.
“Some people, in fact, are looking forward to the amenities being a citizen of Tupelo would bring. Now we have to put all those things on hold.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.