Divided Tupelo council mulls rainy day loan

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The long-awaited East Main Street widening project, which was expected to start this summer, could get shelved until 2015 if the city rejects a deal with the Major Thoroughfare Committee.
A divided City Council on Thursday debated whether to cover anticipated, yet temporary, shortfalls in the Major Thoroughfare budget with rainy day funds. The deal would allow five road-improvement projects, including East Main Street, to proceed as planned.
The Major Thoroughfare Committee, which gets funding from a 10-mill property tax, would reimburse rainy day money with tax revenues as they accrue. Those revenues produce about $4 million annually – enough to fund all the projects within the current five-year phase. But the committee currently lacks sufficient funds in the bank to start all the projects now, even though all are ready to begin.
Council members in favor of the deal, like Markel Whittington of Ward 1, said its approval will save taxpayers money because construction costs are sure to rise in the years the projects are postponed.
Johnny Davis of Ward 5 called the East Main Street widening “a poster child” for the program that had been delayed long enough. He supports the deal.
But opponents, including Mike Bryan of Ward 6, said the Major Thoroughfare Program was designed to be “pay-as-you-go.”
Borrowing funds, even temporarily, violated the spirit of the program, he said.
Bryan also worried about depleting the city’s rainy day account, which sits at about $17 million.
It’s possible the Major Thoroughfare Committee will borrow no funds at all, depending on when contractors submit bills for work. At the most, Pirkle estimated, it could require a $4.3 million advance.
The committee already has one ongoing project – the widening of South Gloster Street – and will start another one this year with the construction of a bridge over the Natchez Trace Parkway.
But if it starts two widening projects on East Main Street this summer, as proposed, it faces the potential cash flow woes.
It also wants to hire a firm to conduct a citywide traffic study that will help determine what projects come next.
The council could vote on the deal at its July 3 meeting.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com