Jackson infrastructure gets state attention again

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For the second straight year, talks of implementing state control over some city of Jackson infrastructure needs are heating up at the Capitol.

A bill died in the waning days of the 2016 session that would have created a broadly mapped Capitol Complex district, placing its infrastructure repairs under control of a city-state board.

A Senate committee passed a proposal on Friday that would give the state Department of Finance and Administration the authority to manage Jackson infrastructure near state-owned facilities or roads connecting to state highways. Water and sewer upgrades, sidewalk repairs and construction and parks and cemeteries control would also fall under the state agency’s control.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson

The bill would create a new state fund fed annually by 18.5 percent of all sales tax revenue collected by the city. The annual revenue would approach $24 million, said the bill’s main sponsor Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson.

“The intent of this bill is not to pave streets in neighborhoods across the city,” Blount said Friday. “This is to protect the state’s investment in its capital city.”

Lawmakers in working groups this summer said the state owns $15 billion in property — a majority in downtown Jackson.

The new fund would be spent at the discretion of state Department of Finance and Administration Executive Director Laura Jackson, who could also decide how to fulfill the projects. An advisory board of city and state appointees would serve as a liaison between community leaders and the agency.

The city of Jackson, which supported an early version of legislation with the same funding structure last year, would ultimately have to sign off on the city-state partnership.

Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn have all expressed interest this year in working toward a city-state partnership to help resolve some of Jackson’s infrastructure needs.

“At this time, DFA has had no discussions with the sponsors of SB 2891 or with Jackson,” said agency spokesman Chuck McIntosh. “Should this bill pass, DFA will commit its efforts and energy to a successful fulfillment.”

Gil Ford Photography

House Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson

A rewrite of last year’s Capitol Complex legislation has been filed by Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, (HB 1226) and awaits committee action ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for bills to move out of committee. Denny did not return phone calls Friday.

In 2009, the Legislature approved a plan that would allow the city of Jackson to implement a 1 percent sales tax increase, with revenues collected moving into a separate fund which was controlled by a city-state commission.

Jackson voters overwhelmingly chose to adopt the plan in January 2014.

Since then, the commission has collected $36 million, said commission member Pete Perry. Just $5 million of that has been paid vendors that have begun improvement work. However, the commission has approved contracts totaling $31 million, he said.

“The city’s administration can’t get anything done,” Perry said. “The commission has approved everything … but it still takes year or year and half to get contracts out. To take a year or more to award an engineering contract is ridiculous. The city points fingers and says it’s commission’s fault, but it’s not that at all.”

In the Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency committee meeting Friday morning, Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, said he would like to take back the money from the city of Jackson’s 1 percent sales tax collection for infrastructure improvements.

“If this goes forward, I’d ask that there’d be some review of the funds that have been allocated to Jackson through that special exemption to be returned to the state for use for infrastructure in this district,” Hopson said Friday.

City officials maintain the 1 percent collections will be effective when the majority of work begins. This week, Mayor Tony Yarber launched a $4.5 million major streets project “to resurface the most heavily traveled roads in Jackson,” city spokeswoman Shelia Byrd said Friday. Byrd said around $32 million in several projects has been obligated by the commission, and work will begin on those within the next few months.

Blount and Perry told Mississippi Today on Friday that the 1 percent sales tax money belongs to the city, and the Senate and House bills this session would only have the authority to divert future sales tax collections, not take what has accrued to the city so far.

“The 1 percent tax is critical to Jackson’s continued progress of improving its infrastructure system,” Byrd said. “The momentum of this work depends on the 1 Percent tax generated by Jackson’s citizens.”

The Senate bill will now move to the floor calendar for future debate. Denny’s House bill has until the end of the day Tuesday to be voted out of the House Appropriations Committee.

Editor’s note: This story reflects a clarification, that the sales-tax commission has obligated $31 million in contracts and approximately $5 million has been spent.