3 On Your Side Investigates: Roadblocked - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

3 On Your Side Investigates: Roadblocked

3 On Your Side has followed the money to find out what that one-cent sales tax has accomplished so far in the Capital City. Source: WLBT 3 On Your Side has followed the money to find out what that one-cent sales tax has accomplished so far in the Capital City. Source: WLBT
JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

More than two years ago, voters in the city of Jackson overwhelmingly approved a tax to tackle the decades of neglect to the city’s infrastructure and water system.

Since then, the Capital City has taken in $27 million of your tax dollars, and only a fraction of it has been spent.

Jackson leadership insists that’s not the whole picture.

3 On Your Side has followed the money to find out what that one-cent sales tax has accomplished so far in the Capital City -- including millions of dollars in projects that kick off in the next few weeks -- and more importantly, what roadblocks still stand in the way.

“Streets are getting worse by the day. The issues of our water and waste water are getting worse by the day. The longer we keep it from being addressed, the more expensive the problem’s going to be," State Sen. John Horhn said.

When it comes to how well Jackson’s one-cent sales tax is performing, you might say Horhn has a vested interest.

After all, he wrote the legislation that established the tax in the first place.

“We passed it back in 2011, almost five years ago, so I don’t have to tell you how frustrated we are at the lack of movement, the fact that the local government’s wheels are turning way too slowly," Horhn said.

Jackson Communications Director Shelia Byrd said the city has collected $27 million in the last two years -- at least a million a month.

What Horhn and others take issue with is how much has actually been spent: $280,516.55.

Byrd said that number will climb once project contractors bill the city.

“What we’ve been doing for a long time, is we’ve been treating symptoms. We haven’t been curing anything," Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber said. "You’re gonna see a more holistic approach: fixing water lines, fixing sewer lines, repaving streets.”

Yarber also takes issue with recent criticism from those who, in general, think the city can't manage contracts or taxpayer money.

"We have not had one overrun if you will. There's not been one contract that this administration has seen where we had to go back to the city council and say we need more money to get the project complete. Not one," Yarber said.

On top of what's actually been spent, numbers provided by Byrd indicate $17.2 million has been allocated -- set aside -- for everything from drainage ($5.8 million) to street resurfacing ($3.7 million, not counting $16.5 million from a federal TIGER Grant because that money isn't part of the one-cent revenue from Jackson taxpayers), water line replacements ($4.2 million), and utility cut repair.

“Folks may have had water line breaks, and the city's come out and cut the street up. Since 2007, there's been over 1,500 of those," Yarber said.

An additional $1.9 million has also been approved for bridges in the Capital City, including one on Hanging Moss Road.

Construction began to reconstruct that bridge in April, nearly a year after the project itself had been approved by the One-Cent Sales Tax Commission.

Many say they think the mayor’s office is getting these projects off the ground too slowly.

“All I know is that the commission’s approved plans going back into the summer of last year, and we’ve only had come before the council a couple of hundred thousand dollars worth of work," Jackson City Council President Melvin Priester Jr. said.

So what’s causing the big delay here?

For one, Priester said: a lack of enough employees in public works to draft a 20-year master plan for the money, a plan the one-cent sales tax commission would then approve.

“That’s what was identified to us -- the lack of a program manager -- as the big holdup," Priester said.

So the council approved that -- as did the commission -- and allocated $840,000 of that one-cent money for managers to make the process go faster.

Horhn said that never should have happened because state statute says it’s the commission’s job, not Jackson Public Works, to draft a master plan for the one-cent revenue.

“The commission has one job, and that’s to create a master plan. Everything else is on the city. They control the money, they control the hiring of the engineers, they control that part of the process. They’re in charge of getting this thing done," Horhn said.

Commission member Pete Perry says the city isn’t giving the commission raw data -- like the condition of Jackson bridges, weak spots in the city’s water system -- so the commission can draft its own plan.

“I think we need a lot more information and a lot more analysis going into the master plan. More than a list of projects, a list of needs and a list of wants," Perry said.

To Perry, who serves on the commission as Gov. Phil Bryant's appointee, it seems Yarber just wants to strong-arm them into approving pieces of the master plan already drafted by the city, without questioning the specifics.

“It’s not about strong-arming. It’s about putting a plan in front of you. You are not a subject matter expert as much as you would like to think so. So what you’ve got to do is get out of the way, allow these people who’ve gone to school for this stuff to come in, educate us, and allow us to make educated decisions," Yarber said.

Another challenge lies with street repair.

Yarber said the city can’t just patch a pothole while the street around it crumbles due to deferred maintenance, higher-than-average rainfall and other considerations.

He believes his twenty-year master plan does that.

The mayor said it would also cost more money for the commission to put out its own plan, with the cost of studies and such coming out of that one-cent fund.

“Right now, we’ve got a public works team who’s doing that on the general fund dime. So why would we want to allocate funds that don’t need to be allocated to do that kind of work?” Yarber said.

The year-long delays Priester mentioned, Yarber added, are typical of projects approved within the city because the process of bringing in engineers and experts to design and plan takes time.

Horhn said his time in the Legislature has seen that ring true, too.

The JSU Metro Parkway, Fortification Street, the Convention Complex: all took a decade to complete.

“Every single project that we’ve done for the city of Jackson has taken forever, from the time we passed the legislation to the time it took for them to get it done," Horhn said.

The 23-year lawmaker, who ran for mayor of Jackson two years ago, said one of the city’s biggest challenges is people allowing personal conflicts to get in the way of progress.

“It’s time out for that. We need to get this city fixed sooner rather than later. Everybody needs to check their egos at the door and figure out how we can all work together to get this thing done," Horhn said.

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