By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Three weeks before Tupelo voters decide on Mayor Jack Reed Jr.’s successor in City Hall, the candidates are staying busy trying to prove who is the stronger fiscal conservative for the city.
The Democrat in the June 4 general election for mayor, attorney Jason Shelton, says he’s the true fiscal conservative. His opponent, City Council President Fred Pitts, a Republican business owner, says a Democrat claiming to be a bona fide fiscal conservative is a pipe dream.
Shelton opposes plans advanced by the current administration but never voted on earlier this term to pay for university tuition as an incentive to keep students in Tupelo and offer down payment assistance loans to residents. He says he’s against spending taxpayer money on these programs supported by Reed and Pitts.
“I don’t believe in using your tax dollars to give people a down payment in their homes or send their kids to school,” Shelton said to applause last week at a fundraiser, “Republicans for Shelton,” hosted by his GOP-leaning friends.
Speaking after the campaign event, Shelton said he stands behind his opposition to city taxpayers supporting down payment assistance.
“It’s neither wise nor sustainable for the city to get involved in taxpayer-funded home loans,” said Shelton, seeking public office for the first time.
Among the Republicans attending Shelton’s fundraiser was former Mayor Ed Neelly, who declined to comment about the mayor’s race but in the past has publicly criticized Reed’s policy initiatives as fiscally unsound.
Pitts and Shelton both believe the top goal for the city should be attracting more middle-income residents. After the 2010 Census revealed less growth in Tupelo compared to surrounding areas, community leaders tried to find solutions to bring more middle-income residents to the city and keep those here from leaving.
Reed offered a package of proposals, including the tuition and home down payment plans, and asked a Community Development Foundation-organized group of business and community leaders to review and tweak them. The resulting Reed and Pitts-backed “All-America City Plan” found lackluster support on the City Council and in the community.
After those plans failed, the City Council passed a $2.4 million plan to revitalize blighted parts of the city, including sections along West Jackson Street.
Pitts still stands by his support for the substance of the plan. In hindsight, however, he said it offered too much to digest at one time.
“I think if we would have put all of it in smaller parts we could have done a better job of explaining it,” Pitts said. “It was too big to sell and explain.”
One part of the plan tried to “level the playing field” for homebuyers deciding whether to buy a house in the city of Tupelo or nearby areas. Tupelo must compete against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development home loans to rural areas surrounding Tupelo that don’t require down payments, while prospective home buyers in the city typically have no such help.
Pitts isn’t through with trying to sell parts of the plan to the city. If elected, one of his first actions as mayor will be to work with the City Council to find ways to help offset the federal government-provided incentives that homebuyers have to purchase homes in surrounding areas instead of Tupelo.
Discussing the issue Monday, Pitts said he isn’t sure about the answer to solving the financial advantage of buying a house outside the city and isn’t even sure local government has the right solution.
Pitts said this issue may need to be addressed on the federal level and pointed out all but one of the state’s congressional delegation are Republicans.
“That’s another reason I think it’s important to have a Republican mayor,” he said. “I have first-hand knowledge of and know our legislators in office in Washington.”
Shelton said his plan to support redevelopment of decaying neighborhoods throughout the city would start by better publicizing existing programs available to property owners making upgrades to their property. As for detailed specifics, Shelton said he needs to gather more information.
“It’s difficult to say as far as speaking without knowing all of the facts,” he said.
While both candidates said they don’t plan to support tax increases, Pitts said voters shouldn’t believe Shelton’s talk of fiscal conservatism.
While Shelton has no record in public office to examine, Pitts said, “If you can believe a Democrat is a fiscal conservative, then what else can be said,” he said.
Shelton campaigns on a new perspective for city government, while Pitts said he stands behind his record.
“If the majority of people believe good things have happened in Tupelo in the last four years, I shouldn’t have a problem with the election,” Pitts said. “That, along with hard work.”