By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Mayor Jason Shelton’s first year in office stands out for two milestones among the most tragic, destructive and unifying events in Tupelo’s 144-year history.
He campaigned on improving Northeast Mississippi’s hub to make it more attractive for middle-income families and “too good to leave.”
When Shelton stood on the stage of Lawhon Elementary School’s auditorium a year ago this Tuesday to take his oath of office, nothing could have prepared him for what was to come.
A police officer was shot to death and another critically injured less than six months into his term. Then a major natural disaster struck four months later.
Shelton, 38, an attorney and Tupelo’s first Democratic mayor in three decades, has presided during senseless death and millions of dollars in commercial and residential property destruction, but those moments were followed by a community-wide outpouring of compassion, unity and volunteerism.
Two days before Christmas, a bank robber shot two Tupelo Police Department officers, killing Gale Stauffer and critically injuring Joseph Maher. FBI agents, U.S. Marshals and others joined local law enforcement in Tupelo to conduct the search.
Authorities in Phoenix, Arizona, shot and killed an Oklahoma City man identified as the gunman less than a week after the Tupelo tragedy.
Just as the city had begun to recover from the shock of that event, an EF3 tornado on April 28 destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes and wiped out businesses along North Gloster Street,
Debris pickup will continue into next month, while overall tornado recovery efforts may take five or more years. Federal and state emergency management agencies continue to assist damaged parts of the city.
Thousands of citizens and others from outside Tupelo have joined volunteer efforts that began even as crews worked to restore electricity to thousands of homes.
Shelton and city government overall have received high marks from residents for their handling of the two crises that have confronted the new mayor.
Pat Pearce, chairperson of the neighborhood association group Team Tupelo, has known Shelton since he attended Tupelo High School with her daughter. In recent months, they’ve worked together to discuss ways to improve declining older neighborhoods in the city.
Pearce said between the tornado and shootings, Shelton has faced grave situations no community ever wants to encounter.
“I wouldn’t say he’s been perfect because nobody’s ever perfect,” she said. “But he’s really been put to the test with everything that’s happened and really done a good job for Tupelo.”
Even City Council members who often challenge Shelton’s ideas see the likable, friendly mayor as a leader during times of need.
“It’s been a tough, tough first year,” said Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington. “I think Jason has done well in a crisis.”
Shelton filed papers to run for mayor in March 2013, unable to convince about a dozen others he talked with to seek the office after Jack Reed Jr. decided not to run for a second term. Apparently improving his persuasion skills, Shelton convinced nearly 60 percent of city voters to propel him to his first elected public office through a campaign of fiscal conservatism and improving quality of life.
The 2010 Census showed the region’s largest city with a population of 34,546 had grown less than 1 percent compared to a decade earlier. Many residents had left the city for neighboring communities to the north or settled outside Tupelo when they moved to the area.
Despite these challenges and the intervening crises, Shelton still stands behind the optimism he expressed the day he took office.
“There’s nothing wrong with Tupelo that can’t be fixed with all that’s right with it,” he said during his swearing-in ceremony.
Shelton’s experience in a year as an elected official has taught him the importance of not just what he communicates but how he delivers the message. He has worked to learn key interests of council members and others who can assist with his vision to improve Tupelo.
“There’s a learn as you go part to it,” he said. “The issues important to the person you’re speaking to have to be considered.”
Another new experience that took adjustment was the visibility that goes with being mayor. Shelton feels flattered by people who recognize him at a gas station, grocery store or elsewhere. Public praise, criticism and debate of his political decisions and policy positions have required getting used to and accepting.
“When there’s negative commentary it sometimes stings a little,” he said. “But at the same time, that’s just part of the job and something you have to learn how to accept.”
Beyond tragedy and damaging acts of nature, Shelton and the City Council have sought to lower city personnel costs and seek other ways to improve Tupelo’s long-term financial health, proceed with neighborhood redevelopment and revitalization efforts and look for new ideas to encourage young families, professionals and others to call the four-time winner of the All- America City award home.
Among the first changes Shelton pushed involved legal services provided to the city, which had been outsourced to the firm Mitchell, McNutt & Sams for 36 of the previous 40 years. The mayor convinced the council to approval a one-year trial contract for an in-house attorney under the condition the new position would receive a quarterly review of costs.
Since Ben Logan, a former member of the old Tupelo Board of Aldermen who also serves as mayor of Sherman, filled the position in October, only one such review has occurred. It showed a savings of 50.3 percent, or more than $10,000 per month, compared to similar costs from the law firm each month.
Other positions Shelton has supported, however, appear silenced for now, such as creating “quiet zones” along the city’s railroad crossings. Estimates for engineering for the change have been $265,000 with no certainty of local taxpayer costs for all work associated with the project. Shelton stopped pressing the issue after acknowledging steep costs and uncertain state and federal resources available for the project.
Another issue he’s supported, a pilot public transportation project, also seems to have stalled. A number of council members mention uncertainty of tornado recovery expenses to the city as a reason to halt efforts to evaluate funding a yearlong public transit trial. The proposals submitted by companies interested in providing the service have yet to receive attention from the council.
Council President Nettie Davis, who has been the strongest council advocate for public transit, acknowledged tornado recovery efforts have taken higher priority in recent months.
While her term as council president ends this week, she plans to continue pushing a council majority to support a specific public transportation proposal.
“I don’t think it’s a dead issue,” she said Friday.
Tupelo’s nearly $3 million West Jackson Street redevelopment project began under the Reed administration, but Shelton said he fully supports the effort to strengthen the residential area. This public-private partnership approach with the nonprofit organization Neighborhood Development Corporation could also extend to another private property purchased by the city, the $2.15 million acquisition of Azalea Gardens Apartments on Ida Street. Shelton said he philosophically opposes government directly purchasing real estate but believes efforts to improve these areas justified the decision.
Moving forward, city department heads have already started preparing proposed budgets for fiscal year 2015. State law requires the approval of the new budget in about two and a half months, Sept. 15.
Shelton said he anticipates a budget similar to the fiscal year 2014 budget that included no tax increases, additional debt or use of city reserves for general fund operations. However, the city will likely issue up to $4.7 million in new bond debt to cover the $10 million price tag for a new police headquarters. The city already has about $5.3 million toward the project.
While preparing budgets, new facilities and recurring matters remain important, Shelton said rebuilding and recovery in commercial and residential areas impacted by the tornado two months ago tops his list.
“The tornado essentially changed my entire focus,” he said. “If there’s something higher than priority number one, it would be considered that.”