LLOYD GRAY: One innovation affirmed, another awaits a decision

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

In the midst of an era of tax and spend aversion, Tupelo voters last week overwhelmingly rejected the opportunity to cut their city property taxes by almost a third.
They voted instead to continue the taxing and spending for the Major Thoroughfare Program for another five years. And the verdict was overwhelming, with 83 percent in favor.
The MTP may be an anomaly. It is, after all, a pay-as-you-go program that doesn’t involve taking on debt. Its results over the last 20 years are clearly visible and its benefits obvious to anyone who drives around the city.
Still, it says something about the community’s mindset that there wasn’t a mad dash to the polls to cut taxes when voters had the chance.
There wasn’t much of a dash to the polls for any reason, in fact. Only a little more than one in 10 of Tupelo’s registered voters participated in the special election on Tuesday, a total of 2,430. But that’s about par for past thoroughfare elections, and both the turnout and outcome closely tracked the last vote in 2006.
The people who valued the program obviously made it a point to vote. Anyone else had their chance; the election was well-publicized.
More uncertainty surrounded this election than past thoroughfare votes, given the earlier discussion about possibly diverting some of the 10 mills to fund neighborhood revitalization proposals or routine city street maintenance. Ultimately whatever confusion existed was overcome.
So even in a time of community self-examination and questioning, confirming evidence is in that Tupelo still believes in its future and is willing to pay for what it sees as paths to progress. While there was initially some disagreement among city leaders about whether another round of the full 10 mills devoted to thoroughfares was the wisest course, the vote still has to be interpreted as a statement that Tupelo citizens want to continue a progressive and innovative tradition.
Now comes the next step. Tupelo has decided to continue a signature program, but new challenges demand attention just as surely as congested traffic choking off growth did 20 years ago when the thoroughfare concept was introduced.
There were skeptics and opponents then, just as there are now to proposals before the City Council designed to reverse Tupelo’s middle-class drain to outlying areas. At least some of the opposition seems to miss the point of the proposals.
Whether it’s assistance in purchasing or remodeling homes or going to college, the Tupelo revitalization plan isn’t being proposed because the city is suddenly feeling generous. It’s before the council because the city has started to decline as a place where middle-class people want or can afford to live, and that decline will accelerate without action. The plan is about providing incentives that will make it more financially attractive for people to locate or stay in the city and less likely that older neighborhoods will see further decay.
It’s kind of like incentives to attract industry. Nobody’s especially crazy about government expenditures to lure business investment, but it’s necessary to compete.
Tupelo’s current trends are the same every city confronts and few do anything about until it’s too late. Tupelo, as in so many other cases in its history, is trying to be the exception.
Tupelo’s property taxes are not high in comparison with Mississippi’s other major cities. But there is little question that taxes will have to go higher in future years to retain current levels of services if, as in so many other places, people steadily migrate outward, leaving behind an aging population, a shrinking middle class and a city made up largely of the poor and wealthy – an incomplete and unhealthy mix.
The Tupelo revitalization plan is about confronting hard facts and doing something about them, as is the Tupelo tradition. The first of two public hearings to explain the plan will be Monday at 6 p.m. at the BancorpSouth Arena, the second at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Link Centre. These are opportunities for citizens to hear specifics, ask questions and express concerns. Any plan adopted should get a complete public vetting first.
Twenty years ago, the Major Thoroughfare Program emerged as a direct and focused response to a critical need. Tuesday’s vote was yet another vindication of the wisdom of that response, in spite of considerable opposition at the time.
Wringing hands and doing nothing was unthinkable then, as it should be now. The challenges Tupelo faces today are as great as they were then, and they require an appropriate response.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.