Tupelo refines revitalization plan

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – City leaders still lack consensus on a key strategy in Tupelo’s revitalization plan less than two weeks before it comes up for a vote.

Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and the City Council on Thursday debated the final details of the Tupelo Neighborhood Reinvestment Plan during a two-hour work session at City Hall.

They reached agreement on three of the plan’s four major components, but failed to find common ground on one – the restructuring of the city’s rental licensing program that would raise permit and inspection fees for landlords.

Currently, the city charges rental property owners between $10 and $100 per year for a business license. The fee includes unlimited housing inspections. The revitalization plan had proposed raising those fees to $240 annually for single-family rental dwellings and $120 per unit annually for apartment complexes. The fees would still include unlimited inspections.

But after repeated outcry from landlords, the proposal was adjusted so that all landlords would pay $25 per unit annually for a license and $75 per unit for the first two property inspections. Those who failed inspection after that would pay extra for repeat visits by city code inspections.

The amendment didn’t satisfy some council members, who said it still amounted to a tax on one business sector.

“If this don’t change, I won’t vote for the whole plan,” said Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings, who also owns rental property. “I think we can compromise better on this landlord thing.”

Several landlords sat in the council chambers during the discussions.

Ward 3 Couuncilman Jim Newell recommended removing the strategy from the four-part plan before the July 5 vote. He said the group could return to it later.

But council President Fred Pitts disagreed. After the group had tossed out numerous alternatives, Pitts suggested they all submit in writing their ideas. He would compile them, and they could try to reach consensus before the vote.

The plan, which was unveiled in March, aims to make the city a more family-friendly destination to drive up home ownership, home renovations and property values.

Its initial cost was estimated at $15.7 million, but the council’s recent adjustments lowered it to $14.9 million. It’s not planned to require a tax increase.

If successful, it would result in $45 million in private investment to the city and stabilize its middle-class population.

Census data released earlier this year showed Tupelo’s population growth slowing while those of nearby suburbs exploded.

The plan’s other three strategies include:

– A low-interest loan program to help homebuyers with down payments. The council Thursday agreed to lower the maximum loan amount from $70,000 to $50,000 and raise the interest rate from 1 percent to 2.5 percent.

– A matching grant for homeowners improving their properties. The council agreed Thursday to lower the maximum match from $10,000 to $7,500 and limit the grants to houses in urban renewal overlay districts. They also decided to raise the minimum age of a qualifying house from 15 years to 20 years. The grants will be available to either homeowners or landlords and can be used only for structural, plumbing, electrical, mechanical, gas, roof, flooring, kitchen and bathroom improvements.

– A program to pay college tuition for graduating high school students. The council will amend the four-year tuition guarantee to a two-year guarantee that would be eligible when students enter their junior year of college. Students can still get two years of tuition assistance at Itawamba Community College, so the city will pick up the tab once they hit the university level. Students who want to go straight to university will pay their own way the first two years. The city will pay the second two years.

“I’m pleased with this two-year amendment,” Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said. “I think it’s still commendable.”

The city also will amend the minimum GPA requirement from a 2.0 to a 2.5.

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.