Tupelo officials at odds over Phase 5 work

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Greg Pirkle didn’t greet the news warmly when city leaders tentatively offered Monday to finance the South Gloster Street widening project.
The project was supposed to have started in the current five-year phase of the Major Thoroughfare Program, which Pirkle chairs. But budget shortfalls likely will push it to the next phase – if residents approve a next phase. They vote every five years to renew the MTP in a municipal special election; the next one will happen May 3.
So the City Council this week unexpectedly announced plans to fund the project with $2 million in city money, either through bonds or by dipping into the rainy day account.
That way, work can start by summer and won’t depend on positive election results. Several council members enthusiastically embraced the idea, though it hasn’t yet been approved.
But Pirkle saw the proposal as an unwelcome sign.
“If they wanted to guarantee South Gloster, we’d go to bid with that right now because our immediate responsibility is to complete Phase 4 and use money from whatever source it comes – the state, federal government or city of Tupelo.
“The reservation is … it seems to me that pulling South Gloster out is a signal that they’re going to do something different with Phase 5. That’s a signal to me that Phase 5 is in danger.”
The Major Thoroughfare Committee recommends projects for each phase, but the council must approve them before they go to voters.
Plans for Phase 5 include more than $15 million worth of major road-improvement projects, such as widening East Main and West Jackson streets, and $5 million for smaller projects requested by the city. Funds are generated through a 10-mill property tax.
But misunderstandings about what kind of projects the city can request – compounded by a new proposal by Mayor Jack Reed Jr. to take half the millage for neighborhood revitalization – have complicated discussions of the next phase, leading thoroughfare proponents to fear that it’s at risk.
Council members find themselves at odds over how to proceed. Some want the city to leave all MTP funds alone, including the $5 million for smaller projects. Others are fine with the original plan but dislike the mayor’s proposal.
Still others support Reed’s plan, which would give the MTP $10 million over five years and put $10 million into a newly created program called the All-America City Plan.
The plan would be chaired by an oversight committee of volunteer citizens who would use the funds to revitalize neighborhoods in accordance with the city’s comprehensive plan.
That plan, called Tupelo 2025, was adopted more than two years ago and calls for a renewal of the city’s inner core.
Reed’s suggestion has drawn mixed reviews.
“It’s not a plan, it’s an idea,” Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell said, adding that most of the constituents who contacted him don’t support it.
Council President Fred Pitts said most of the constituents he talked to favor the All-America City Plan.
“Once you explain it, everyone supports it,” he said.
While the debate rages, the council faces a deadline. It has until March 22 to decide what Phase 5 will include, and how many mills will fund it. It must do this in order to hold the special election May 3.
And though Pirkle said the Major Thoroughfare Committee won’t change its own Phase 5 recommendations, it did ask the council a favor: remove the $5 million – 2.5 mills – it had set aside for city-requested projects.
“It was there as a concession to the administration and the council to say we wanted to work together. But we’ve been hearing from the community they don’t want money spent on projects they don’t know about,” he said.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.