TUPELO • City officials will vote today on the final version of Mayor Jason Shelton’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 after a tense council work session took place last week over portions of the proposed long-term capital budget plan.
Although most of the Tupelo City Council agreed with next year’s immediate capital budget plan, Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings voiced concern over the administration’s proposed five-year capital project plan, especially with a request to build a $1.5 million outdoor pool by the Tupelo Aquatic Center in 2022.
“Right now, there are so many things out there people in our wards are counting on us to see is done,” Jennings said at the meeting. “It’s kind of like that’s a wish list. We’ve got things facing us that don’t need to wait two years down the road. They need to be looked at now in each of our wards that we can spend this money on.”
A capital plan is a portion of the city’s budget that is allocated toward long-term or bigger-ticket investment projects, such as constructing new city buildings or purchasing a new vehicle.
Today, the City Council is only voting on next year’s portion of the capital plan and not on the entire five-year plan. However, council members can ask questions about the long-term vision and request amendments to the plan. The aquatic center will not be one of the items the council is voting on for today’s final budget.
Jennings said he believes citizens want to see more money being invested in individual neighborhoods to produce immediate results for citizens rather than invest in one larger item like the outdoor pool.
He later told the Daily Journal that he supports the aquatic center and originally voted for the creation of the facility. However, he wishes the city would set a certain number of dollars aside for the project each year instead of allocating all the funds for it at one time.
“If we’re going to spend a large amount of money on an outdoor pool next to where we have an indoor pool, let’s look at other things that we need in all of our wards,” Jennings said. “I might have projects that I want to see in my ward, but I want the administration to see if they have anything in the works in my ward, too.”
Don Lewis, the city’s chief operating officer, told the Daily Journal at the meeting that the capital budget was getting misconstrued by some council members and wanted to emphasize that the council is only voting for next year’s capital project plan and the other years are simply a working plan of ideas right now to be more transparent with the council.
Lewis and Kim Hanna, the city’s chief financial officer, later told the Daily Journal in an interview at City Hall on Friday that the process of the capital plan and the budget works most effectively when council members communicate with the administration if there are certain things they want to see on the capital project list.
“(Jennings) should bring forward his request,” Lewis said. “Every council member should bring forward their request in writing.”
Lewis stresses that the capital plan is not just something submitted by the administration, but it’s a collective effort by directors of city departments, citizens and the council members.
“The part the council is missing is that they’re not giving the input we need. This is their capital plan, too,” Lewis said.
In another tense moment at the meeting, Ward 2 Councilman Lynn Bryan told the Shelton administration, with many city department heads attending the council meeting, that there is a perception among Tupelo citizens that directors of city departments are driving in new vehicles purchased with tax dollars while city employees drive in older vehicles.
“I mean, it’s like how many new vehicles is the city going to buy for everybody to drive?” Bryan asked. “Everybody drives a new vehicle. There’s a lot of new vehicles out there. It seems like all the leaders are traveling in new vehicles and folks out getting work done are driving a heap. In my company, I drive the heap because the money’s made out in the field.”
Hanna later rebutted Bryan’s claims and said a blanket statement like his is “misleading and false” and emphasized that departments are frugal with the vehicles they are given.
“Shiny, new vehicles? No. That’s not the case,” Hanna said. “We provide a vehicle for all departments to travel to conferences and for training.”
Bryan also said he wished the city would put more of its efforts into revitalizing certain neighborhoods after he has gotten several complaints from constituents in his ward that the city is not doing enough to prevent neighborhoods from falling into disrepair.
“Some of these neighborhoods are just gone,” Bryan said. “They’ll never be saved because we haven’t made a concerted effort to treat it like a military operation.”
He further explained that many problems are attributed to landlords not keeping certain residential houses up to certain standards, which leads to neighbors complaining that houses near them look bad.
“(Residents) should not have to put up with that and we should do whatever it takes,” Bryan said. “If we have to look like the most draconian society whatsoever to a landlord, that’s fine with me.”
Shelton responded by saying it would be unconstitutional to operate the city like a military base or respond in a draconian manner to landlords, but his administration is doing a number of things to revitalize neighborhoods and his administration has hired more personnel for this and the council has appropriated many funds to go toward neighborhood revitalization.
The Shelton administration has also proposed a lot of money in the capital plan go toward repairing roads, purchasing equipment for city departments and adding new vehicles.
Later in January, the city will vote on projects that will be purchased with a proposed bond debt of approximately $7.5 million. Some of the projects proposed to be purchased with bonds are constructing a new fire station, purchasing a new fire truck, improving the Bel Air Center and drainage work across the city.
The council will vote on the entire budget at a special called council meeting at 4 p.m. today.