LLOYD GRAY: Defining ‘fiscal conservative’

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

With all the talk of who’s the most fiscally conservative candidate in the Tupelo mayor’s race, it’s worth pondering what the term might connote in connection with the city’s historical success.
Would, for example, a fiscally conservative mayor have opposed a voter-approved 10-mill tax increase to fund the Major Thoroughfare Program? After all, these days many elected officials oppose any possibility of a tax increase, even if it has to be approved by the voters.
Would a fiscally conservative mayor have opposed the bond issues that built new and at the time state-of-the-art school facilities around town? There were elected officials and voters, though in the minority, who didn’t want taxes raised for what they saw as the school system’s spendthrift ways.
Would a fiscally conservative mayor have opposed putting a steady stream of public funds into the conversion of an abandoned downtown mall into a coliseum to draw people to the city and enhance entertainment options for residents? Some self-styled fiscal conservatives opposed that project, seeing it as a sure-fail boondoggle.
Would a fiscally conservative mayor have opposed levying a quarter-cent sales tax to shore up a rapidly dwindling water supply by creating a whole new system for pumping water into the city?
Would a fiscally conservative mayor have opposed issuing $22 million in bonds to buy property in an underutilized, unattractive area at a major entrance to downtown for conversion to a city center with an attractive City Hall, retail, office and public gathering spaces, restaurants and residences?
If when you say fiscal conservative you’re talking about penny-pinching, then yes, these projects would likely all have gotten a thumbs-down. They were new, innovative and involved in each case a degree of risk – something people whose sole goal is to hold down all public spending are averse to most of the time.
But if by fiscal conservative is meant prudent use of taxpayer dollars to generate a long-term return on investment through new business generation and a strengthened tax base for city services, then any and all of these projects would pass muster.
Maybe the better term is fiscal responsibility. That doesn’t necessarily imply refusal to spend public money on more than routine services, but it does suggest a carefully considered plan for how it will be spent, assurances that there will be sources to pay for it and that it will ultimately leave the city in stronger economic and fiscal shape.
All the projects mentioned above have been successful. The Major Thoroughfare Program gave Tupelo development options it didn’t have before, not to mention making life more convenient for residents and visitors. The commitment to education represented by the expansive Tupelo High campus has been cited by Toyota and numerous other economic development prospects as one of the things that impressed them most about Tupelo.
The BancorpSouth Arena saved the city from a huge abandoned shell in its midst and has brought shows, people and dollars to the city for nearly 20 years. The water system tax kept industrial and business growth in the city from coming to a standstill. And while the recession has kept the Fairpark development from yet reaching its full potential, it’s given the city center a new and dynamic look and feel and the public investment has been entirely recouped.
All these projects, and many before them, have strengthened the city and left city government, by any objective measure, still in sound financial shape. But in each case, people who could see no value in spending those public funds opposed them.
Tupelo has prospered in part because of a willingness by elected officials to partner with the private sector in identifying needs and funding them, always with a clear vision of how the public spending will generate a return on the investment over the course of many years. That’s something we don’t need to lose sight of in the debate on who’s more fiscally conservative – especially in light of the city’s current challenges.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@Journalinc.com.

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