Hed: Petitions seek to force vote on Tupelo City Hall bonds
By Philip Moulden
A Tupelo city councilman is spearheading a drive to force a referendum on funding for a proposed new City Hall complex.
If he succeeds, it would take approval of two-thirds of city voters to keep the project on track.
City Council voted 6-3 last week to issue $9 million in bonds to fund the planned 60,000-square-foot facility that would house virtually all city offices. City financial officials contend the bonds can be paid off without a tax increase.
City offices are now scattered in buildings throughout town and the near century-old cramped City Hall on Broadway needs renovation. The proposed complex would be located on the south side of Main Street between Front and Commerce streets.
But Ward 5 Councilman Tommy Doty has begun circulating petitions opposing issuance of the bonds. He said petitions have been distributed to several complex opponents to gather signatures.
“I think the people have a right to decide. Let them vote,” Doty said Thursday.
“We’re already $71 million in debt,” he said. “And we’re going more in debt; it just goes on and on. There’s got to be a stopping point … And I believe there would have to be a tax increase.”
The city lists outstanding indebtedness subject to state limitations of $17.4 million. The new general obligation bonds would not exceed statutory caps, officials say.
If 1,500 of Tupelo’s registered voters sign the petition, the city would have to conduct a citywide vote on the issue. State law mandates that 60 percent of those voting would have to approve for the bonds to be sold.
Doty said Thursday he is not certain how many people have signed the petitions to date. The deadline for filing the documents is May 7. Doty said bond opponents will conduct a meeting sometime prior to that to evaluate where the drive stands.
Complex backers say they weren’t surprised by the petition effort.
“I expected it,” said businessman Jack Reed Sr., chairman of a citizens task force that recommended building the complex and the funding method after a near two-year study of city space needs.
“I expect it (the bond issue) to be approved,” Reed said. “I think people really want a municipal complex that reflects the true character of Tupelo, Mississippi.”
Mayor Jack Marshall Thursday called Doty’s drive an affront to the citizens who served on the task force.
“In the beginning, all the council members appointed members to the task force, and the task force unanimously recommended (the new complex),” Marshall said.
“I think it’s bad for someone to ask citizens to do something, then turn their nose up at the recommendations,” he said. “I believe the municipal complex is a desperately needed facility.”
Marshall also pointed to the importance of the new building as a catalyst to private development of the rest of the old fairgrounds property.
“The private sector is waiting to see what the city does,” he said. “This will kick off a tremendous amount of development (at the site).”
But Doty maintained the project was excessive for a city he contends is hard-pressed for cash. Doty was also one of two council members who voted against formation of the task force, and he said his appointee was not present when the task force voted on the recommendation.
“If the city debt was low and we had all kinds of money, maybe like those casino cities, it would be a different situation. But we don’t,” Doty said.