Tax measure for infrastructure raises stakes for Clarksdale voters in already big election year

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Anna Wolfe / Mississippi Today

Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy said a politician who focuses on job opportunities and improving quality of life will be successful in the Delta.

CLARKSDALE – An Election Day oddity could await Coahoma County voters in the next general election. Imagine this: On Aug. 6, voters walk into their polling places ready to cast their ballots. After checking in with poll workers, they tread toward their voting machines. Instead of one machine, there are two – one for the county election and another for the city.

Back in September Clarksdale mayor and commissioners passed resolutions to let taxpayers have a say on dissolving the Clarksdale Public Utilities board and on a tax increase for infrastructure improvements.

On the campaign trail and after taking office in June 2017, Mayor Chuck Espy vowed he would listen to the nearly 16,000 residents of Clarksdale and address any concerns they would have, touting that if he doesn’t do what he said he was going to do, then “fire” him.

Closing in on his second year as the city’s chief, the mayor says he has heard from many of the town’s citizens about multiple issues – safety concerns due to spike in crime, consistent flooding and high utility bills and lack of transparency among the CPU Commission, to name a few.

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Clarksdale resident holds up her co-worker’s $2,000 utility bill.

Those concerns haven’t fallen on deaf ears, Espy said, elaborating that the people will have a say in two matters – CPU and infrastructure – in this upcoming city election.

“(These are) two wonderful issues that voters have to weigh on. I would never be the politician to force something on the public. I’ll always be as transparent as possible and this is ultimately about transparency,” said Espy in a phone call to Mississippi Today.

The first resolution asks to impose an ad valorem, or property, tax increase for the issuance of general obligation bonds of the city. A general obligation bond is when a municipality pledges to use all available resources including taxes to repay bond holders, according to Investopedia. This would directly impact homeowners and business owners  because the city plans to raise property taxes.

The city would issue bonds for $17 million in capital improvements — paving, constructing, and improving streets, sidewalks, and bridges. It also includes repairing and improving storm, drainage, and sewerage systems. 

Prior to the election, city officials will have more information on the bond, interest rates, and other  factors that will determine how much taxes will increase, said Cathy Clark, city clerk. She went on to say that on the ballot, all of the information concerning the bond will be provided for voters, so they can know what they’re voting for.

Of the city’s $20 million budget, 49 percent is from property tax revenue and 24 percent is sales tax revenue. Over the past four months, sales tax revenue is down $54,000. Clark said Amazon and online purchases as well as the loss of Kroger contributed to the decline.

At a recent board meeting, representatives from Neel Schaffer, a “privately held, employee-owned” engineering, planning, and construction management firm gave an estimate of the project costs.

About $2.8 million is projected for flash flood areas, between $2 million and $6 million for backwater flood areas, $3.8 million for the Second Street bridge (city has applied for a grant to offset this), and $3.7 million to widen Friars Point Road and repair the bridge.

City officials are also looking to make street repairs and construct sidewalks for an additional $1.2 million.

At a Dec. 28 meeting, the Clarksdale board of mayor and commissioners passed two resolutions to appear on the city’s ballot in August.

The second resolution would “abolish” the current CPU Commission board and grant the city control over the commission. The CPU Commission is a five-member board – appointed by the mayor and commissioners – that oversees Clarksdale Public Utilities, a municipally-owned utility company, providing primarily water and electric services to almost 7,000 residents in Clarksdale and a few rural areas.

On both matters, the resolution asks the state government’s local and private legislation committee to authorize a “referendum of a majority of the qualified electors of the city voting in the election” to decide on what happens.

State Rep. Orlando Paden, D-Clarksdale and Sen. Robert Jackson, D-Marks, submitted multiple bills – House Bill 1368, House Bill 774, Senate Bill 2308 and Senate Bill 2280 –for legislative consideration.  However, both HB774 and SB2308 died in committee.

Paden went on to say that he is unsure of what the outcome will be for the bills, but if lawmakers vote no, the city cannot hold the referendum on this issue.

“Some (constituents) didn’t want me to do anything,” said Paden in a phone call with Mississippi Today. “But anytime you give me something with people and voting, I don’t want to take anything away from them and their voting rights.”

Espy said his administration having oversight of the utility commission provides transparency and that the CPU board makeup would not change. 

“By voting yes (for the abolishment), we will give the city the authority to have the same board members, CEO, attorney … but will only become an authorizing board. Every decision they make will come before the board (of mayor and commissioners). It will never be final until the board approves it,” said Espy.

“We’re not asking permission to take away anything from CPU. We’re asking permission to have accountability for CPU,” said Espy.

The utility company currently has $39.4 million in total assets.

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Clarksdale Public Utilities Commission chairman, Freddie Davis, asks customers to pursue other issues besides their utility bills at a CPU commission board meeting on August 28.

Freddie Davis, former CPU commission president, inquired how would the city officials taking over CPU be beneficial for the people.

“How would it solve the problem if the city (takes over)?” said Davis. “The city taking over CPU isn’t going to take the bills down.  …(CPU) has been functioning well for over 30 years and now all of a sudden the city wants control?” 

However, back in the fall, customers began flooding the CPU commission meetings upset over high bills and demanding transparency regarding excessive fees and the firing of three CPU officials.

In responding to ratepayers at one of meetings concerning transparency, Davis said: “We will not respond because we don’t have to.”

Since then, CPU has named Curtis Boschert, former city attorney, as the new General Manager. Davis has been replaced with Adrian Allen, former Quality of Life Commission member, and board member James Hicks serves as president of the commission.

And under Boschert’s leadership, the “Pick A Due Date” program is now available at no cost. Customers had complained that enrolling in the program was costly — a $10 initial fee, then $1 every month after. Another concern for ratepayers was being able to calculate their fuel adjustment rate. That cost is now visible on the bill.

Boschert said it would be “premature to comment” on the matter because he hasn’t seen a signed resolution or any legislation concerning dissolving the CPU board. 

But will citizens come out to vote on the resolutions?

In the runoff election on Nov. 27, about 43 percent of the registered voters in Coahoma County cast their ballots. And of the 15,431 registered voters in the county, 10,305 are in Clarksdale, according to officials in the circuit clerk’s office.

Voting twice on election day could pose a challenge to some voters like standing in long lines or traveling to two separate polling locations.

For example, for a county election, a voter may vote at the fire station on Lee Drive, and then, for the city election, they may have to travel across town to vote at the Civic Auditorium.

Andrew Thompson, former Coahoma County Sheriff and president of the Coahoma County election commission, said he has heard talk of the city’s referendum, but doesn’t have any knowledge of it.

“I’ve only heard hearsay. I’ve never known the city and county (elections) to run simultaneously,” he said in a phone call.

Leah Rupp Smith, spokesperson the secretary of state, added in an email to Mississippi Today: “It is not common for municipalities to hold a special referendum during a primary election conducted by the parties, and it could cause confusion for voters.” 

Sanford Johnson, member of the Clarksdale Municipal Election Commission, said he hasn’t heard anything or spoken to anyone about the referendum, but said once the bill passes through the Legislature, they should be given next steps on how to proceed.

Espy doesn’t foresee any challenges on Election Day, he said despite low turnout in previous election cycles, he’s hopeful and confident that Clarksdalians will come out and vote on the matters that affect them.

“If both of those are no votes, then things stay the same. …I promised everyone that they did not have to wait four years for Clarksdale to turnaround. July 4 will make the halfway perimeter with two years into my administration,” said Espy.  “Imagine what we can do with the rest of two years … I made some big promises.”