Input sought on plan to fight Tupelo flight with roadwork funds

By Emily LeCoz / NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – City leaders are seeking public input on a plan to combat middle-class flight to the suburbs with funds traditionally reserved for major road improvements.
In an initiative announced Monday by Mayor Jack Reed Jr., the Major Thoroughfare Program would get half its typical funding – about $10 million – to complete two of its most pressing street projects in the next five years: widening East Main and South Gloster streets. The other $10 million would go into a new program called the All-America City Plan.
The All-America City Plan would fund neighborhood-revitalization projects to stabilize existing home values while attracting more families to the community. Reed didn’t say exactly what type of projects the plan would entail, but he said a volunteer-based committee would make those decisions as stewards of the program and its funds.
The idea comes just weeks after a U.S. Census Bureau study revealed a trend of middle-class flight from Tupelo to the surrounding areas, as well as a widening income gap between the city and its suburbs. It also prompted frank discussions within city government about how to curb the pattern, with some looking at the Major Thoroughfare Program as a funding source.
Reed presented his plan during a City Council work session where members had gathered to discuss the next five-year phase of the Major Thoroughfare Program.
The MTP is a taxpayer-funded initiative that improves traffic by widening existing streets and building new ones. City residents vote every five years whether to renew the program, which levies a 10-mill property tax now generating about $20 million per phase.
Its current phase – the fourth one – will expire at the end of this year, and residents are expected to vote on the fifth phase in May. The MTP committee proposed a series of road-improvement projects in the upcoming phase, but some city leaders said Tupelo has more urgent needs.
“Most of our neighborhoods are older. There has been no significant investment in these neighborhoods. Our public school system is facing white flight – our ratio in the public school district is 50/50, which is disproportionate to population,” Reed said. “Tupelo is losing our middle-class family base.”
Echoing the mayor’s comments was council President Fred Pitts, who said the city must implement recommendations outlined in its long-range comprehensive plan.
The plan, adopted in 2008, calls for more urban development and neighborhood revitalization. But the city hasn’t spent any money bringing those ideas to life. Pitts said the MTP has accomplished most of its goals; now it’s time to use that money on the comprehensive plan “before it’s too late.”
If the council accepts Reed’s plan, residents would vote on a 5-mill Major Thoroughfare Program later this year. The program would improve East Main and South Gloster streets but drop the other anticipated projects, including widening Veterans Boulevard, Eason Boulevard and West Jackson Street.
The council would then vote on the 5 mills for the All-America City Plan as part of a general-fund tax increase. Residents wouldn’t experience any net tax increase; property taxes would remain unchanged from where they are today.
Council members listened patiently to the explanation, but when they could comment, many either rejected the plan or urged caution in adopting it.
“The city of Tupelo is happy and satisfied with their tax dollars being well spent on the success of the Major Thoroughfare Program,” said Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan. “We’re all getting quirky with the money, and before you know it we’re fixing to shut down and lose these 10 mills.”
Others said they, too, worried about middle-class flight to the suburbs and desired stronger and more attractive neighborhoods. But they questioned the wisdom of raiding a proven program to fund one that, as of today, is yet undefined.
“My concern with the 5 mills is, how will that money be designated?” said Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell. “What’s the definition of neighborhood development? If it’s sidewalks and bike lanes, I think some of our citizens might have a problem with that.”
Newell also said it’s too late to make such a radical change to the Major Thoroughfare Program. It should have come up a year ago, he said.
Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings said he wanted more information on Reed’s program and more citizen input before making a decision. Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington suggested finding money for neighborhood revitalization elsewhere.
About 50 people attended the meeting, held at City Hall. Among them were city employees, residents and members of the Major Thoroughfare Committee.
After the meeting, committee Chairman Greg Pirkle said he wasn’t consulted about the mayor’s plans and had heard the proposal for the first time Monday like everyone else.
“We on the committee obviously think there’s still much to be done to improve our major thoroughfares,” Pirkle said. “We have more projects than money at this point. But if it’s the will of the council and the citizens to reduce our funding to 5 mills, we will follow through with that decision and make the best of it.”
It’s unclear when the mayor and council will reconvene to continue discussions on the proposal. But Reed and Pitts said they want public input before renewing the talk.
“We need to hear from both sides,” Pitts said. “We need to hear from the citizens of Tupelo, and not just those who are against this.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.