Local governments get state storm aid

Gov. Phil Bryant, left, hugs Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton as they celebrate the unanimous passage of $17 million in funding legislation to help pay for recovery from disasters, including tornadoes that recently pounded the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Gov. Phil Bryant, left, hugs Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton as they celebrate the unanimous passage of $17 million in funding legislation to help pay for recovery from disasters, including tornadoes that recently pounded the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com

  • james

    of course, it’s Shelton again on the front page like every day for the last 2 weeks. does the daily journal know that other areas, other than tupelo was damaged in the storms? apparently not. they send all the city council yes men with him so they could get a standing ovation for doing nothing like usual. I can’t wait until next year to see the “one year later” edition of the paper. seeing Shelton and the city cronies taking credit for sitting on their butts, smiling and laughing and the oh so important moment of silence. they all make me sick. I long for the day when many of them are heading to prison for corruption.

    • FrereJocques

      James, like someone else said recently, you need to dial it back a notch, or even two notches. Shelton and the Council are doing what they should be doing. I dare say that if the Mayor was someone you “approved” of, they would be doing very much the same thing and you would probably be singing their praises.

      There’s a time for partisanship and a time for working together. This is the latter. As for you, your own partisanship is showing, and it’s blatant, inappropriate at this stage, and otherwise disgusting.

      • james

        not like they’re out volunteering help to clean up debris, but instead are doing yoga in front of city hall for photo ops or in Jackson getting standing ovations for doing nothing except running their mouths and wasting taxpayer money.

        • FrereJocques

          If you can’t tell the difference between the Mayor’s job and a volunteer worker, then you have bigger problems that need dealing with.

          • james

            volunteering actually shows they care about their community but since getting their hands dirty will kill them all, they’d rather stay inside and run their mouths. maybe Shelton should become a fitness instructor since he likes being in front of the cameras with very attractive women doing jumping jacks around him instead.