Thoroughfare funds eyed for other uses

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – For the first time in history, cash-strapped city leaders are eyeing the $4 million generated annually by the Major Thoroughfare Program as a revenue source for their non-thoroughfare projects.
They say Tupelo has shifted priorities since the 1991 debut of the Major Thoroughfare Program, which spends $20 million every five years on large-scale road improvements.
Another five-year phase comes up for city election in May. If residents approve it, the program’s volunteer oversight committee plans to widen several major arteries, including East Main Street and Veterans and Eason boulevards.
Those projects haven’t yet been confirmed, but they’re a continuation of the committee’s original goal, set two decades ago: to widen Main and Gloster streets and build a loop around the city.
This time, though, could be different.
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. has recommended diverting $1 million from that fund each year for smaller street projects, as chosen by city leaders – a first in the program’s history.
And City Planner Pat Falkner said at least some of the money should fund much-needed neighborhood revitalization to maintain and eventually increase Tupelo’s middle class.
“Over the last 20 years, the thoroughfare program has successfully made Tupelo a great place to drive cars,” Falkner said. “But it needs to be a great place to live.”
At the very least, Falkner said, the group needs to align its road projects with the city’s 2025 Comprehensive Plan. The plan, adopted two years ago, calls for denser housing and commercial development and more sidewalks and bicycle routes.
It’s a clear shift from the urban sprawl mentality that guided Tupelo’s growth during the previous two decades.
Longtime Major Thoroughfare Committee member Chuck Imbler Jr. said it’s probably tempting to skim from the project fund because it represents such a big piece of Tupelo’s tax millage.
Of the 32.47 mills Tupelo taxes its residents, 10 go to the Major Thoroughfare Program. It’s second only to the general-fund rate, which is set at 15.35 mills and raises about $6.2 million annually.
“Thirty percent of the city’s tax revenue sticks out like a sore thumb,” Imbler said. “If the mayor wants to reallocate that money for other things, he can stand up and say it. It’s his right as mayor. But if you dip your hand too far in the honey pot, I don’t think people are going to go for it. I don’t think it will pass.”
For the record, Imbler said he agrees with diverting some money to maintain thoroughfare roads and even some city streets through the year. But other committee members, including Brad Prewitt, do not.
Prewitt had voiced his objection to that plan at the group’s Dec. 13 meeting, saying it contradicts the program’s goals.
The mayor said he supports the Major Thoroughfare Program and its work during the past 20 years but that it’s time to re-examine its priorities and how they mesh with the city’s needs.
Tupelo has a growing list of roads requiring repair that its annual $1.2 million street-maintenance budget can’t cover. Reed said it’s appropriate to allocate some Major Thoroughfare Program funds toward those improvements.
He also said it’s probably time to consider other uses, too.
“That’s both a practical and a philosophical discussion that I think the city fathers, commissions and council and I all need to consider,” Reed said. “What are the priorities for Tupelo for the next five to 10 years, and then how to fund those priorities?”
Falkner said the comprehensive plan already outlines the city’s priorities for the next decade or so. It just needs funding, and the Major Thoroughfare Program is an obvious source of it.
But it’s unclear if that money can go toward some of the neighborhood-revitalization projects Falkner envisions, like bulldozing dilapidated houses and developing interconnected parks.
The resolution that created the Major Thoroughfare Program outlines how it spends its funds: “for the purpose of constructing, improving or paving streets, sidewalks, driveways, parkways, walkways or public parking facilities, and purchasing land therefor.”
The council would have to amend the resolution to allow such changes.
Falkner thinks it’s time to consider it.
“We need to invest in residential growth, but we’re putting a third of our tax efforts into building streets that serve the commercial sector,” he said. “If the people who live in Tupelo become less affluent, then the commercial sector will go away, and it doesn’t matter how good the roads are.”
Committee Chairman Greg Pirkle said others in the community would likely disagree. “What I’m hearing from the public,” he said, “is they want to see tax dollars spent on construction of roads, a focus on roads that carry traffic and alleviate congestion.
“There needs to be some discussion before we spend money on neighborhood developments.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.