CATEGORY: Tupelo Stories

AUTHOR: MOULDE

HED:Tupelo seeks tighter controls on projects

By Philip Moulden

Daily Journal

Tupelo officials are looking for tighter controls on special assessment projects to avoid pitfalls of the past that may have cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The proposed policy wouldn't remove politics from the process, but it would put the burden squarely on City Council members.

Special assessment projects involve public works improvements that benefit both the city and abutting properties, but that the city might not normally undertake.

Qualifying projects include such items as street construction or repairs, curbs and gutters, sidewalks, water and sewer systems, and drainage systems.

The city would generally arrange for or do the work and charge adjoining landowners some or all the cost on a proportional basis. Landowner payments could be spread over up to 20 years, and would be paid at the same time property taxes are paid - a special tax assessment.

A project might encompass a large area, such as a subdivision, or a single lot. Work normally cannot be done on private property, unless the council rules a project protects city property.

For the most part special assessment projects have been good for the city, officials contend. But some in the past few years have sparked major controversy.

They include the Ridgeway subdivision project, where residents and the city were to roughly split the estimated $735,000 cost. To date the city has spent more than $1.8 million in connection with Ridgeway.

A series of multimillion-dollar claims and counterclaims have been filed by the city, the former Public Service Department director, the project engineer and a Batesville contractor over the project. The city contends it was defrauded, but its adversaries contend city administration officials issued orders that led to the overruns.

Those legal actions, begun in June 1996, are still pending in Lee County Circuit Court.

Smaller projects also have spawned disputes.

In at least one case, drainage pipe was installed in an open ditch on the city's rights of way, ostensibly to ease water runoff. But some council members argue that the pipe did not help water flow, but merely enhanced the abutting landowner by eliminating the ditch in front of his home.

Yet taxpayers shared the cost.

Ward 5 City Councilman Tommy Doty moved this week to kill special projects entirely but no other council member would go along.

However, a majority appears to be looking for a policy that would spell out procedures for granting special assessment projects, although it's uncertain how lenient they want to be.

"We all realize we have a problem with special assessments and that problem stems from not having a good policy," city finance director Lynn Norris told council members this week.

Under the pending proposal, property owners would have to petition the council directly to consider authorization for special assessment status.

If the council agreed, it would refer the question to the Public Service Department to determine the scope of the project, its need and the estimated cost.

The council would again have to decide whether to proceed and determine the portion of cost that would be paid by the city and adjacent landowners.

The process would include a series of public hearings and other council votes.

The council is scheduled to consider the proposed policy at its Sept. 2 meeting.

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