PAL move not tied to feds

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Top city officials say Tupelo’s proposal to purchase and renovate the old Salvation Army gym can proceed with or without federal tobacco settlement dollars.
Despite continued hopes those funds will come through, Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and City Council President Fred Pitts on Friday said the project doesn’t hinge on that money.
Reed cited numerous other revenue sources available to buy the building and renovate it as the future home of the Tupelo Police Athletic League. Among them are general fund dollars, capital project bonds and rainy day reserves.
On Thursday, Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell said he’ll reject the project unless it’s funded by tobacco settlement money as opposed to municipal dollars. But other council members either support the project or are not ready to make a decision.
The city is entitled to some of the money seized by the federal government in a contraband cigarette sting two years ago because of its involvement in the ongoing investigation, which has swept through several states, including Mississippi.
But Tupelo doesn’t know when the feds will release the seized assets or exactly how much money it will get out of the deal. It also doesn’t know whether it can use those funds for the PAL project, although it’s likely it can.
Reed said he never anticipated funding the entire PAL project with tobacco funds and would support the concept even without any of those dollars.
The city does have $115,000 in tobacco money from a previous distribution that it likely can put toward the project. But its total cost remains unknown, Pitts said.
“The $1 million figure, who knows?” Pitts said, referring to the estimate cited by the Daily Journal of “nearly $1 million.”
The Salvation Army is asking $232,000 for the building, and Reed said it could cost as much as $600,000 to renovate the structure to meet PAL’s specifications. That’s $832,000.
But Pitts and Reed said those costs are high estimates that haven’t been set and are still up for negotiation. The final price could be much lower, and costs could be spaced out over the course of several years, Pitts said.
“We’re not going to write a check for $1 million out of the rainy day fund all at one time,” he said.
Pitts called the project a good investment. It also has the full support of Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis.
Other council members, though, said financing will determine their support of the project, and it’s still too early to say either way.
“It depends on where the money comes from and how much,” said Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan. “If we can use some tobacco money, some rainy day money, I might support it. But I don’t know yet. I need to verify those sources and see how it would work out.”
Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington, who said he’s still studying the proposal, offered initial support as long as funding comes from the Police Department’s own budget. He also suggested the city first explore properties it currently owns for the PAL program before purchasing another building.
“It’s a work in progress,” Reed said of the discussions.
The PAL program has taught sports to more than 2,000 children since it started in 2006. It’s run by the Police Department and staffed mainly with volunteer officers and firefighters, who work one-on-one with the children to have fun and foster positive relationships.
It’s currently located in a building on Robert E. Lee Drive but needs room to grow and has eyed the old Salvation Army gym behind the Link Centre as its potential future home.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com