By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The state will pay the local governments’ costs for debris removal under legislation passed in a Thursday special session where $17 million was transferred to Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to pay for the aftermath of the April 28 tornadoes.
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, who attended the special session along with five Tupelo City Council members, said the commitment of the state to pay the local match to the federal government for debris removal “is a big deal” that would help the city’s financial situation.
Shelton said the state help is important because he anticipates Tupelo’s sales tax revenue to take a major hit in the coming months because of the damage to many of the city’s businesses.
The Legislature wasted little time passing the proposal Thursday without a dissenting vote in the special session called by Gov. Phil Bryant. The legislation transfers $17 million from the car tag reduction fund to MEMA to pay costs associated with the multiple tornadoes that hit in numerous areas of the state on April 28 and for costs from past storms that have hit in the state. For instance, the state still owes money from the 2011 tornado that devastated Smithville.
MEMA Executive Director Robert Latham said the $17 million would not cover all of those costs, but would take care of immediate needs.
Bryant said the $17 million “will…go to those who need it most.” He praised legislators “for standing shoulder to shoulder” to pass the proposal and adjourn in about three hours.
Much of the money transferred to MEMA on Thursday will go to meet a federal match. In the 12 counties declared emergency areas by President Barack Obama, the federal government pays 75 percent of the costs for much of the response and recovery with the state and local governments responsible for 12.5 percent each of the costs. Under the legislation passed Thursday, the state will pay the local government’s share for debris removal, but not for other items. For instance, Shelton estimates that Tupelo Water & Light alone will have costs of $5 million to $6 million associated with the storm.
Shelton could not give an estimate yet on the costs of debris removal, but said it would be substantial. Latham estimated that the local/state costs of debris removal statewide will be $2 million to $3 million.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D- Amory, whose district includes parts of Tupelo, said, it is too early “to determine the extent of the communities’ needs… We will take another look at it in the regular session when we have more information. This is helpful.”
Sen. J.P. Wilemon, D-Belmont, was going to try to amend the legislation to ensure debris removal was paid for Itawamba County, which, like Lee, was declared a disaster area. But the amendment was not needed since the legislative leadership ensured the costs to the local governments were included.
The legislation also includes a provision to allow local governments to address the immediate need to draw down funds that eventually will be reimbursed by the federal government.
The only stumbling block Thursday came when House Democrats tried to change the bill to take the money from the state rainy day fund instead of the car tag reduction fund. Democrats argued, that with the extra money in the fund, car tags could be reduced more in the coming year. Republicans rejected the proposal, saying the transfer would not increase the costs of car tags.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, urged everyone to pass the proposal despite the disagreement on which fund to use. In a impassioned speech that grabbed the attention of the entire House and Bryant, who was in the chamber, he said storm response and recovery was a bipartisan effort that brought people and governments together.
Holland said the storm “knocked a big hole in our hearts. But we are Tupelo-strong and we are going to pull out.”
Tupelo City Council members had blown-up photos on display in the Capitol to show the storm’s devastation in Lee County.
Council President Nettie Davis said the council and mayor wanted legislators to see the devastation.
“It is kind of hard if you are not seeing it to understand the devastation,” said Ward 5 Councilman Buddy Palmer.