Safety, play issues aired in annex trial

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Public safety and recreation slid under the legal microscope Tuesday as Tupelo’s annexation trial reached its 12th day.
Under questioning by city attorneys, a trio of Tupelo department heads touted the benefits of their services and their ability to expand them into newly annexed areas.
But opponents’ attorneys questioned the feasibility and fairness of those plans, in some cases calling certain aspects “patently absurd.”
The city seeks to annex 16.15 square miles from six different areas ringing the city. Within these areas reside some 2,800 people and about two dozen businesses.
Many in those areas oppose annexation, as do Lee County and the cities of Plantersville and Saltillo. The case is being tried in Lee County Chancery Court with Judge Edward C. Prisock presiding. It’s expected to last several weeks.
Tupelo Fire Chief Thomas Walker told the court his department offers a fully trained staff, specialized equipment and a better-than-average response time of 3.5 minutes.
And though he praised volunteer fire departments, which currently protect the proposed annexation areas, Walker said the city could do better.
County attorney Chad Mask doubted it. He said Tupelo has no plans to extend large water pipes and hydrants into certain areas. That means city fire trucks would have to carry their own water supply to a fire, and the city doesn’t have a large tanker truck.
The county does have tanker trucks, which can carry 2,500-3,000 gallons of water on them. The city, by contrast, would require three large engines to haul an equivalent amount.
The city’s only other option in such areas would be to link engines: One would tap into the nearest hydrant and run its hose to the next closest truck, which would link its hose to the next, and so on until it reached the fire.
It would take nearly a dozen trucks to fight some blazes, a concept that Mask called “patently absurd.”
Walker agreed, but he said Tupelo has enough engines and firefighters to quickly and successfully extinguish a blaze anywhere in the city and the proposed annexed areas.
Later in the trial, Tupelo Police Chief Tony Carleton testified he would add four additional police officers – one for each shift – to patrol the enlarged city.
Carleton said his department currently has 115 certified officers and provides a host of services and round-the-clock protection for the residents and business owners of Tupelo.
Like Walker earlier, Carleton said those same services would extend to the newly annexed areas without compromising the current standards or skimping in the new areas.
But Saltillo attorney Jason Herring argued four new officers wasn’t sufficient.
“If you add four officers to 115 officers, that is a 3 percent increase,” Herring said. Yet the city will increase its land size by 32 percent.
“That leaves a 29 percent gap,” he argued. “Someone is going to get cheated 29 percent.”
Herring said the police department would need nearly 37 additional officers to maintain its current level of protection.
Not so, said Carleton, testifying that staffing is based more on population and number of 911 calls than on land size. The city’s currently divided into 10 patrol zones, some spanning vast territories like all of east Tupelo; others much smaller, covering only a few blocks.
Population alone, the city will grow by 10 percent after annexation, said city attorney John Hill.
“You have 10 police officers per shift now, and you’re going to add one” per shift, Hill said. “That’s 10 percent, isn’t it?”
Carleton agreed.
Attorneys then questioned Parks and Recreation Director Don Lewis, who described the city’s various parks, festivals, camps, athletics programs and other services available to all Lee County residents.
But the city plans no new parks in any of the six proposed annexation areas, and developed only two parks within Tupelo’s previous annexation area, which it took in 1989.
“That is poor performance,” Mask said.
Lewis disagreed, saying the city instead developed its larger parks during that time to better serve the entire community.
The trial is expected to resume at 9:30 a.m. today.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.