Lower taxes or better roads?

By Emily LeCoz/NEMS Daily Journal

City voters will decide May 3 whether to snuff or save Tupelo’s long-running road-improvement initiative, the Major Thoroughfare Program.
It’s a tradition honored every five years since the program’s 1991 debut. Each time, voters have extended the initiative and the 10-mill property tax levy that funds it.
As a result, residents have seen a host of major road improvements, such as the widening of North Gloster and West Main Streets, of Coley Road, of Eason and Cliff Gookin Boulevards.
They also got several new intersections and a new road from west Tupelo to the mall, which still is under construction.
For its next phase – the fifth – the Major Thoroughfare Program Oversight Committee wants to widen South Gloster, East Main and Jackson streets, as well as Eason and Veterans boulevards.
It also wants to put right-hand turn lanes along North Gloster Street near the mall, and build an interchange where the new state Highway 6 will cross South Thomas Street, which it also will widen.
Despite consistent voter approval, the program hasn’t been without controversy over the years. Some have lamented the higher tax burden it poses – boosting the city’s total millage by nearly 50 percent.
Others bemoaned its promotion of urban sprawl.
Those complaints resurfaced with a vengeance this year as Tupelo confronted a new reality: After flourishing for decades, the city’s population grew just 1 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest census data.
Meanwhile, the population count in rural Lee County and its northern suburbs surged ahead, gaining both residents and wealth.
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. blamed the trend on declining neighborhoods and a shortage of attractive middle-class homes in Tupelo. He suggested borrowing 5 mills from the MTP to launch a city revitalization campaign.
“In 1991, Tupelo’s neighborhoods were mostly attractive, our schools reflected our resident population and our roads needed work,” Reed said during a March meeting. “Now neighborhoods are deteriorating … there is white flight in our schools.
“Given the priorities of 2011 versus 1991 when the program first started, I recommend going forward with $10 million for South Gloster and East Main … and using the other $10 million to drive middle-class families back into the city.”
MTP committee members, who already had promised 2 mills from their upcoming phase to smaller city street improvements, balked at Reed’s suggestion. They also reallocated the 2 mills back into their general budget for large-scale road projects.
“I think it’s a mistake to say the road program improvements don’t fit at this time, even when there is a dire need for other economic development,” said MTP committee Chairman Greg Pirkle. “I think that we, as citizens in the committee, agree you continue to have needs for development within the city. It is not going to help our neighborhoods for us to stop improving our road system.”
Reed, with help from the Community Development Foundation and Tupelo Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris, since has found a way to fund a revitalization effort without MTP money or a tax increase.
The mayor told the Daily Journal on Thursday he supports fully funding both the Major Thoroughfare Program and the Tupelo Neighborhood Reinvestment Plan, which is the $15.7 million initiative proposed to stave off the community’s decline.
Two weeks from Tuesday, voters will decide on the full 10-mill program with all the funds supporting large-scale road projects.
None of the money will go toward municipal street work or neighborhood revitalization.
That’s a message MTP committee members desperately want to spread. They hope to stem the confusion generated by Tupelo’s revitalization debate, a debate that postponed the City Council’s approval of the Phase 5 program by several weeks.
“It has shortened the time we have to educate the public since it was not approved by the council until last month,” Pirkle said. “The other thing is in the past, there was no confusion about what the money was going to be spent on. Now we have the responsibility to assure the voters all the funds will be used for the thoroughfare program.”
If they don’t persuade enough voters to support it, the Major Thoroughfare Program will end this year when its tax collections stop.
The group has enough money in the bank to complete its ongoing project – the new road connecting west Tupelo to the Barnes Crossing shopping district – but not enough to widen South Gloster or East Main streets.
Both of those long-overdue projects had been included in the current phase, as was the widening of South Thomas Street to the new Highway 6. But all have been pushed into the next phase because of cost overruns.
If the vote fails, the city might fund those projects itself.
Then again, it might not.

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.

Q&A WITH GREG PIRKLE
chairman of the Major Thoroughfare Oversight Committee
Q: What’s your outlook on the May 3 vote?
A: I do feel relatively confident. All the comments that I hear from the public are very positive.
Q: Usually when voters go to the polls for the MTP, they can see the results of the most recent phase. But this time
your signature project – the new road connecting west Tupelo to the mall area – isn’t even halfway done. Will that
hurt the vote?
A: I don’t think it will have negative impact because of the importance people place on that new road. People know the
area of the mall and they know the congestion and that we need to alleviate congestion. This has been a very public
process. They understand how much red tape, how much cooperation is needed from the federal, state and city governments.
It has educated the public on exactly what is involved in building a new road.
Q: Since the previous election, Toyota has announced its plans for a new plant near Tupelo. Does that have an impact
on the MTP?
A: Toyota’s decision to come here does two things for me: It validates the need for the program in the first place – it’s
difficult for me to see Toyota coming to Tupelo if all we had was a two-lane road system. And it justifies the money spent
on the future of the road program. We need to prepare for the increased traffic we’ll see once the plant opens.
Q: Why do you think the Major Thoroughfare Program receives public support despite the extra tax it requires?
A: I think there are three reasons it keeps passing: One, it has a direct impact on the quality of their lives. They can drive
these roads and see the difference. Two, I believe the community can see the economic benefit … whether it’s commercial
or residential. Three, we all want and like to have some control over how our money is spent, even in government.
This is the one program we have where the voters clearly instruct the government on how the money will be spent.

Phase 5 projects
If voters in a May 3 special election extend the Major Thoroughfare Program
an additional five years, here’s what they’ll get.
■ Project 1: Five-lane South Gloster Street from Garfield Street to the new
state Highway 6 near South Green Street extended – $4.3 million
■ Project 2: Five-lane East Main Street from U.S. 45 to Willow Road – $4.8
million
■ Project 3: Add right-hand turn lanes on North Gloster Street near the
mall – $1.5 million
■ Project 4: Five-lane Eason Boulevard from Veterans Boulevard to Briar
Ridge Road – $1.9 million
■ Project 5: Three-lane South Thomas Street from Cliff Gookin Boulevard to
the new Highway 6 – $2.1 million
■ Project 6: Three lane West Jackson Street from Coley Road to Air Park
Road and add a turn signal at the Air Park intersection at West Main Street –
$4.1 million
■ Project 7: Five-lane Veterans Boulevard from East Main Street to U.S. 78
– $3.7 million
■ Total cost: $22.4 million

Your tax dollars at work in Tupelo
- The Major Thoroughfare Program funds its road-improvement projects with a 10-mill property tax. That’s $1 for every thousand dollars of assessed property. For example, someone with a $100,000 house pays $100 toward the program, along with regular property taxes. The money is collected every tax season and deposited into a special account.