Clarksdale vote on infrastructure improvements advances despite legislative setback

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CLARKSDALE – Two months ago, city officials announced plans for a special election in August for voters to weigh in on two issues – one allowing the city to hold the Clarksdale Public Utilities Commission accountable and the other a bond issue for infrastructure improvements.

Multiple pieces of legislation were filed to pave the way for the election, but they never found the light of day in the Legislature, each dying in committee. However, that didn’t stop city leaders from finding other avenues to give residents a vote.

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Mayor Chuck Espy gives his blessing for the new drone manufacturing facility in Clarksdale.

But, taxpayers now will only decide the fate of one issue: a proposed 5 millage tax increase for infrastructure, sidewalk and lighting, and flood issues said the mayor and commissioners during this week’s regular board meeting.

City leaders decided the best option would be to use its urban renewal bond capacity and include input from residents on whether to proceed with a referendum, officials said.

“We have done our due diligence, we have done our homework, and now we are ready to go to work,” Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy said.

During the now concluded 2019 legislative session, 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. These bills would’ve allowed the voters to abolish the CPU commission. All the bills died in committee.

Dealing with the CPU commission measure now would be a “headache” and too much of a hassle, said Espy.

Another proposed bill would’ve authorized the city to levy a special tax on infrastructure improvements. It also died in committee.

Originally, the city proposed issuing bonds for $17 million in capital improvements — paving, construction and improving streets, sidewalks and bridges. The proposal also included repairing and improving storm drainage and sewerage systems.

However, the “ball park figure” decreased to about $5 million, said Espy, only including five priority projects: the Second Street Bridge, homes in the Sassee Street drainage area, homes on Pearson Street, sidewalk and lighting and street rehabilitation. (Go here here to see the list of Clarksdale’s project priority list.)

“There were certain items we could not do at this time … and we have to find a funding mechanism for that,” said Espy. “It’s not to say we left someone out, but we have to prioritize to where the water would hit the door or where there was water in the house.”

The city plans to use its authority through the Quality of Life Commission, a five-member appointed urban renewal agency, and issue an urban renewal bond instead of a general obligation bond. The Quality of Life Commission’s job is to issue bonds and create an Urban Renewal Plan.

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Nnamdi Thompson of Government Consultants, Inc.

“According to state statute there’s two different categories that cities are going to use to issue debt. The maximum they’re gonna issue is 15 percent of your taxable assessed value or 20 percent. The urban renewal bonds are going to fall under that 20 percent column,” said Nnamdi Thompson of Government Consultants, Inc.

So, what does 5 mills look like for the taxpayer in Clarksdale? For the owner of a $50,000 home, the assessed value would be 10 percent of that, or $5,000. With a projected 5 mills, the taxpayer would pay $25 a year, or $2.08 a month.

Later this month, the mayor and commissioners plan to adopt a resolution to authorize a public hearing regarding approval of an Urban Renewal Plan and increase of the millage rate. In May, there will be a public hearing, a resolution to adopt the plans and call a special election in August.

“Even though we legally have the authority to [hold a referendum], we wanted to come before the people and gain permission and access to use your tax dollars to improve the city that you live in,” said Espy.