By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Decisions made during the next four years by Tupelo City Council members taking office Monday will affect the community’s direction.
From whether more sidewalks are built and declining neighborhoods receive more city resources to whether trains blow their horns when passing through the community, the council will deal with many lingering public issues and unforeseen concerns.
Keeping Tupelo safe, fiscally sound, planning for the future, creating an attractive environment for young professionals to live and small businesses to locate, all of these and more are important to incoming City Council members.
For a group including a retired grocer, a retired art teacher, community college instructor, insurance agent and small business owners, the new council will bring overlapping and competing ideas on how to advance the city.
The council has a roughly $32 million city budget at its disposal and about $20 million left in reserves, most of it uncommitted. This month they’ll begin the budgeting process for the 2014 fiscal year budget.
Much of the four-month-long process will involve determining what’s most important for the city and how to create city policy that reflects the priorities.
“I think the number one thing is providing housing for young adults who are just starting out and to get people back to Tupelo,” said Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis, who will begin her fourth term. “We also need to provide more experiences for recreation for families and young people.”
For Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington, budget restraint remains most important, a theme he stressed throughout his previous four years in office.
“We’ve got to continue our fiscal responsibility and balance the budget each year,” Whittington said.
He also stressed honing in on improving city infrastructure, neighborhood redevelopment and working with the Tupelo Public School District as a partner for better schools.
During the final weeks of Mayor Jack Reed Jr.’s administration, the council formalized plans for redevelopment along the West Jackson Street area, identified as a pilot redevelopment project for the city.
“Basically, I think we charted a good course for Tupelo over the last four years,” Whittington said. “I think we need to stay the course and work on quality of life in Tupelo.”
The council will mostly have members who have spent the last four years in city government. However, two will be first-time elected officials. Ward 5 Councilman Buddy Palmer, retired owner of a grocery store in east Tupelo, said his biggest concern entering office will be learning process and rules of how local government functions.
Also important to him, Palmer wants to make sure city services stretch to each resident.
“One of my priorities is to see that the transition from the annexed areas to the city is done as fast as possible,” he said.
VOTE ON LEADER
Mixing budgeting priorities with organizational process, City Council members will first vote Monday to decide who to lead the group. Fred Pitts, former Ward 2 councilman who lost in his bid for mayor, served as council president for all four years of the previous term, which means a new council leader will emerge.
Davis, who will begin serving her fourth term, will be the most senior council member, said she will seek the position of council president, who represents the council at weekly department head meetings, helps set the agenda for and runs council meetings.
“I think it will be a historic thing if it happens,” she said. “I’ll be the first woman and the first minority to chair the council.”
During the first month or so of the term, Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings said he will ask the council and incoming Mayor Jason Shelton to attend a retreat away from City Hall to better identify goals between council members and the mayor.
“Communication is going to be key,” Jennings said.
He said important goals for him include adding more jobs to the city, keeping taxes low and ensuring a safe community.
Councilman Mike Bryan of Ward 6, who will begin serving his third term, could not be reached for comment. Also unable to comment, Ward 2 Councilman Lynn Bryan, not related to Mike Bryan, was at a Kiwanis conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Lynn Bryan emphasized the importance of neighborhood redevelopment during his campaign.
Traveling in Canada and unable to speak to a Daily Journal reporter, Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell sent a series of text messages reflecting his priorities. He said his most important priority was to continue redevelopment along South Gloster Street and improve neighborhoods in south Tupelo through stricter code enforcement.
For long-term building projects, Newell, who has emphasized his fiscal conservatism, said he wants to see new facilities for the Tupelo Police Department, the Tupelo-Lee Humane Society and the Lee County Library.
While the city has land and funding set aside for a new police headquarters, funding for a new library and the nonprofit humane society hasn’t been discussed, although both also receive funding from Lee County and private individuals.