Master Plan - Mayor Yarber says commission’s vote oversteps boundaries

Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber says the new one-percent master plan oversteps its boundaries and usurps power from the city’s elected leaders.

The city’s one-percent oversight commission passed its first long-range plan last week.

The plan was short on projects and heavy on policy, and laid out new rules for spending and leveraging one-percent dollars, as well as rules regarding program management services. No projects or expenditures were included.

By contrast, the first-year plan passed in May 2015 included 37 projects and $13.7 million in expenditures. 

Yarber objected to the measure, and said it goes against state statute. Mississippi code section 27-65-241 states the commission shall “establish a master plan for road and street repair, reconstruction and resurfacing projects based on traffic patterns, need and usage, and for water, sewer and drainage projects.”

The code also mandates “expenditures of the revenue … shall be made at the discretion of the governing authorities of the municipality if the expenditures comply with the master plan.”

He was also upset the plan was adopted without giving him enough time to review it.

The document was introduced at last week’s meeting and approved after about an hour of intense discussion.

“We are consulting with legal to see what options we have,” he said.

Sen. John Horhn, who authored the bill creating the tax, forwarded a copy of the plan to the Senate’s legal staff. He believes the plan represents a “pretty far overreach” for the commission. “Our legislation didn’t contemplate this level of oversight,” he said.

The measure was approved on a 6-3 vote, with commissioners Duane O’Neill, Pete Perry, Ted Duckworth, Michael Boerner, Jonathan Lee and John Ditto voting in favor.

Yarber, along with Public Works Director Jerriot Smash and Deputy City Attorney Carrie Johnson, voted against it.

Commissioner Beverly Hogan was absent.

Yarber asked for the matter to be tabled, so the city would have time to review it. Yarber, Johnson and Smash had not seen the measure prior to it being introduced at last week’s meeting.

Perry called for a vote, and Yarber, the commission’s chair, initially refused, threatening to cancel the meeting.

Perry said the meeting couldn’t be cancelled as long as a quorum was present. “You do not get to be a dictator, sir,” Perry told him. 

The plan was adopted a little more than a week after the Jackson City Council authorized the mayor to use one-percent funds to leverage a $90 million line of credit with the Mississippi Development Bank.

Yarber told the council the city could use one-percent funds for leverage, despite the commission’s objections.

Under state law, the commission cannot tell the city how to spend one-percent funds as long as the funds are spent in compliance with a master plan.

Provisions in the new master plan, though, state that the oversight panel must sign off on “any debt obligation” that would be repaid with one-percent dollars before the city can issue the loans.

“Y’all have a different agenda than the commission. The commission has to worry about how the tax dollars will go the farthest,” Duckworth told the mayor at the meeting. “You just want $90 million.”

Other aspects address program management services and how the city must deal with cost overruns on projects.

The latter was added in response to recent news that the city had taken funds off some projects to pay for major increases on others.

As a result, there was no funding for several projects approved in the first-year master plan. Work no longer funded includes the second phases of the Eastover Drive Water Main Replacement Project and the Riverside Drive Reconstruction Project.

Provisions state the city must obtain commission approval before allowing any changes that would increase a project’s cost by more than 10 percent.

The plan also governs program management services. It states that the role of the program manager “shall be determined by the commission and (that the manager) will serve as a liaison between the commission, the department of public works and the city.”

Johnson objected to this provision, in part, because it gives the commission contracting power. According to state statute, the city, not the commission, has the authority to draw up contracts.

State law governing the tax can be found in Mississippi Code Section 27-65-241. A link to the law can be found at northsidesun.com.

IMS Engineers currently serves as program manager and was brought on by the city in December 2015.

Since it was hired, the firm has come under fire numerous times, including last April, for not moving fast enough on implementing one-percent projects.

Additionally, IMS has been criticized for not responding to requests from the commission and for not adequately preparing for commission meetings.

Last year, O’Neill, the board’s co-chair, said commissioners were considering cutting funding for the position for a second year, citing the firm’s performance.

While the plan doesn’t include any projects, per se, it does include factors the city must use in determining how projects are chosen.

Streets must be chosen based on “traffic patterns, economic impact of the area served, facilities served by the street improvement project … and current condition of the street as found by the Stantec report.”

The report was released to the commission in January. It included data from a 2013 street evaluation conducted by Stantec Consulting Services. Data showed that nearly a third of the streets on the Northside were at or near the end of their serviceable lives.

Bridges would be considered based on Mississippi Department of Transportation sufficiency ratings, traffic counts, economic necessity of the route containing the bridge, and “other issues similar to those used in evaluating street improvement priorities.”

Fifty percent of funds must be dedicated to repairing streets and making upgrades to the related infrastructure under the streets chosen.  

 

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