Tupelo leaders dissect neighborhood reinvestment plan

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Money and public opinion apparently remain the final obstacles for Tupelo’s passage of a $15.7 million neighborhood reinvestment plan, according to City Council members Tuesday.
At least two council members said they support the plan in full, and two said they’ll support it if the city can afford it – and if their constituents agree. Others generally favored the plan but gave little indication of final support.
The council spent three hours dissecting each aspect of the four-part plan, which aims to retain and attract families – especially middle-class families – after a decade of stagnant population growth.
Tupelo’s population grew 1 percent since 2000, versus double-digit percentages elsewhere in Lee County. City officials, including Mayor Jack Reed Jr., worry the trend spells trouble for Tupelo’s property and sales tax revenues, as well as its school district.
“If we don’t do something now to save our city and save our property values and keep people in Tupelo, we’re going to have to raise taxes to pay for our services,” said council President Fred Pitts during the meeting at City Hall.
The Tupelo Neighborhood Reinvestment Plan is an attempt to reverse that trend. Among its recommendations: a low-interest loan program to help homebuyers with down payments; stronger code enforcement funded by higher landlord permit fees; a matching grant for homeowners improving their properties; and a program to pay college tuition for graduating high school students.
Details of the plan were unveiled last week at City Hall, capping a month of research by four committees organized by the Community Development Foundation and made up primarily of business leaders. At least one council member was appointed to each group as a city liaison.
Several committee members attended the session Tuesday, as did CDF President and CEO David Rumbarger and Senior Vice President of Economic Development Shane Homan.
The CDF board of directors unanimously endorsed the Tupelo Neighborhood Reinvestment Plan on Monday.
Some council members lauded the plan for its bold approach at combating middle-class decline. Among them was Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington, a fiscal conservative who initially had seemed skeptical.
“I think all four strategies together are a powerful statement and will be revolutionary in the state of Mississippi,” he said. “Vision without action is nothing more than a daydream.”
But Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell questioned whether city government should extend its role beyond basic services like street repair and police protection. He also criticized several aspects of the plan for aiding the rich at the expense of the poor.
That’s because the plan doesn’t limit its benefits to low-income or middle-income families. Even residents able to afford $350,000 homes can take advantage of a proposed down-payment loan program or a home-improvement grant.
At the same time, a proposed fee hike on landlords likely would be passed down to renters, many of whom fit into a low-income bracket.
“This is big government is what it is,” Newell said.
But Rumbarger said the plan, when considered as a whole, benefits all segments of the community. He also noted that several existing city and federal programs already aid the lower-income families.
“We’re not recruiting middle income,” Rumbarger said. “We’re recruiting homeowners and taxpayers. If you look at the census data, we’ve actually lost from all income groups.”
Said Shane Hooper, one of the CDF committee members and a former Tupelo resident: “It’s not just about the poor people. We do so much for the people who aren’t and can’t. We’ve got to do something for the people who can and will, and that’s what this program is all about.”
Hooper said the reinvestment program could lure him and his wife back to Tupelo from Saltillo, where they have lived the past five years.
When asked about the school district’s impact on his family’s decision to relocate, Hooper said he trusts school leaders are taking seriously concerns about discipline and education.
“I have full faith and trust and confidence,” he said, “that they’re doing everything they can to rectify those areas.”
At least one other family already postponed moving from Tupelo in hopes the plan will pass, said Kenneth McNeal, one of the committee members. He said a family he knows plucked a for-sale sign from the yard and stuck it in the garage, waiting for the council’s verdict.
But the council will need more time and information before approving the plan, which Rumbarger called and all-or-nothing proposal; it can’t be broken apart without losing its impact.
Both Newell and Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan said they want hard numbers from the city’s chief financial officer about Tupelo’s ability to afford it.
“I’m for having all four strategies together,” Bryan said, “but only if we can afford it, and I’m not sure we can afford it.”
Newell also said he’d pass the plan if the city can reasonably afford it and if his constituents support it.
CFO Lynn Norris said Tupelo can pay for the plan using existing general revenue funds and by issuing $14 million in urban renewal bonds. It’d require no tax increase, and bond reimbursement would be funded through loan repayments from residents.
“We’ll probably have to have more work sessions and have a public hearing,” said Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings. “Let the people speak.”
No follow-up meetings or public hearings have yet been scheduled.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.