Tupelo reinvestment plan in limbo

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – City Council members lack consensus on a series of sweeping strategies to revitalize Tupelo despite a scheduled vote on the initiative looming two days away.
“I do not feel like we’re ready to vote on it,” said Ward 5 Councilman Jonny Davis. “There are still questions that need to be answered.”
Other council members expressed similar opinions Friday, saying they wavered on certain parts of the overall plan and wanted more time to fine tune it.
Unveiled in March, the Tupelo Neighborhood Reinvestment Plan proposes a multi-pronged approach to attracting and retaining middle-class families in the wake of stagnant population growth and declining neighborhoods.
It would cost roughly $15 million, with most of the funding provided by municipal bonds. Tupelo’s Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris said it shouldn’t require a tax increase.
Throughout the spring and into summer, council members have discussed, dissected and debated the initiative through a series of work sessions and public meetings. And they have modified some of the plan’s components to alleviate their concerns and appease their constituents.
On June 21, a majority of council members said it was time to put the plan to a vote and agreed to place it on their July 5 meeting agenda.
Since then, however, their confidence in it has waned. Among the most troubling concerns is a proposed fee hike on landlords to fund the city’s code enforcement team. The plan initially called for a $240 annual fee on owners of single-family or duplex rental properties and a $120-per-unit fee on apartment complexes.
Landlords citywide balked. They claimed it unfairly punished them for owning rental property and was too steep a fee hike from the current annual fees, which range from $10 to $100.
Council members met June 23 to discuss an amended proposal that would charge lower fees to compliant landlords and progressively higher fees for those whose properties failed repeated inspections.
But the council achieved no consensus on the matter, which remains ambiguous even today. Members are scheduled to meet again Tuesday morning – just hours before the vote – to try and hash out the details.
“I’m leaning very heavily toward voting for the whole thing if we can get the landlord thing worked out,” said Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings.
Others, like Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis and council President Fred Pitts, also said they’ll likely approve the plan if the rental fees can be resolved. Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell said he’s still undecided.
Also undecided is Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington, who said he feels like modifications have watered down the plan. He also said the city continues to lose families due to issues with the school system, yet the plan fails to address those concerns.
But Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan said he’ll oppose the entire initiative regardless of the landlord issue. He said he’s acting on behalf of his constituents who overwhelmingly dislike the plan.
“If it fails,” Bryan said, “I’d like to turn around the very next day and get the City Council together and come up with a plan that the citizens can live with.”
In addition to the rental fee hikes, the plan’s other key 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.

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

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