By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton has publicly threatened to veto city spending for future Tupelo Regional Airport projects after the City Council agreed last week to leverage $500,000 for a matching grant.
What began last week as a change of tone between city elected leaders and airport leadership ended with Shelton questioning Airport Executive Director Josh Abramson’s timing for approaching elected leaders to request support for a grant.
“I just will not consider any more last-minute requests absent a true emergency,” Shelton said. “The taxpayers, through their elected representatives, deserve more time to carefully consider decisions that require spending city funds.”
The airport grant application was due Friday, but Abramson said the council wouldn’t have to spend any committed funds until October.
This latest kerfuffle aggravated TRA’s Board of Directors while Shelton said last-minute requests appear like a negotiation strategy, something airport officials deny. Most City Council members seemed satisfied with the request, approved by a 6-1 vote, enough to override any possible Shelton veto.
Council members offered no public discussion before voting last week to provide $500,000 toward a grant from the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
Some council members have said they see pursuing the grant as exactly what they suggested back in November after the council denied a $1.2 million capital project request.
The proposed project involves building a new taxiway after heavy planes from tenant Universal Asset Management crumbled an old runway near the company’s leased space. The private company recycles retired, large aircraft and has about 85 employees.
Council members said at the time they’d compromise on funding costs, and Abramson said he’d pursue grant funding.
TRA Board of Directors President Frank Cook sent Shelton a Jan. 31 letter explaining the grant and need for matching city funds. Abramson mentioned the grant in February to the council and explained details at a work session March 25 and 31.
Councilman Buddy Palmer of Ward 5 pressed Abramson during the last related work session if the proposed taxiway be located on property available for all tenants, if it could sustain heavy planes and whether the airport could charge UAM related usage fees. The councilman seemed satisfied hearing affirmative answers to all of his questions.
“I will definitely support that,” he said.
Shelton offered no public comments before the vote but made pointed statements a few days later.
“Every single request since I’ve been mayor has been a last-minute request that we have to approve or doom or gloom will happen,” Shelton said. “I want them to be aware that while it may have worked in the past it’s not going to work in the future.”
He also said he’d try to block future city spending projects at the airport benefiting UAM unless the company also helped fund them.
UAM officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Abramson said he plans to keep city leaders informed of airport activities through planned quarterly work sessions but wouldn’t directly respond to the Shelton’s criticisms.
“The airport is glad that the mayor didn’t veto the city council’s decision to pursue this matching grant,” he said. “The airport is the main beneficiary of this project.”
The city will learn likely in early May if the airport will receive the grant.