Financing community development issue for city

Message from Eupora’s Mayor

By Mayor Dan Burchfield
City of Eupora

Last week, I wrote to everyone about the present and future needs of our water system. In order to meet those needs, we are going to have to complete long-range planning, including the financing for those things we know will have to be done.

This week I want to share my views of the needs in the General City Budget.

When the present Board of Aldermen and I were elected, we wanted to work on three things: Water Quality, Street Paving and Economic Development.

Street paving and economic development have been very frustrating to me personally. For the last four years, Webster County and Eupora have been without an economic developer. I have gladly served as both the county’s and the city’s economic contact person.

I have shown every one of the six empty industrial buildings in the city and county at least twice, some on numerous occasions. The downside of this is that it has been over six months since the last building was shown and no industries have come here.

The future is looking better for recruitment of jobs. Three of our buildings are now being marketed by an international recruiting firm. Also, Webster County is about to become part of a three-county economic development organization with Choctaw and Montgomery counties. By joining forces and finances, we should be able to have an organization that can actively recruit industries to come to our area.

Remember, if Choctaw County or Montgomery County gets an industry, then Webster County benefits also, and the reverse is just as true. Our labor pool is willing to commute to find jobs. Think of the people here in Eupora that are traveling to Starkville, Columbus, Tupelo, Canton and other places to work now.

In trying to make this endeavor as successful as possible, the Board of Aldermen and I have offered the restored railroad Depot rent-free and utility-free to this new organization as headquarters. Eupora is geographically and demographically centered in this three-county area.

Our intent for doing this is to make sure Eupora is frequently visited by as many economic prospects as possible. It is imperative that this organization is started and becomes successful.

The city of Eupora has one dedicated mill of property tax for economic development. We will take utility expenses for the Depot from this line item. Any leftover funds should be available to switch to “Community Development.”
I hope to use money here to create a local Main Street organization, Chamber of Commerce or Merchant’s Association in order to keep the energy of our downtown high and growing. The recent acquisition of the ACLP grant that Eupora was able to get is testimony to the interest that is there.

There are so many needs in this area of community development. Our Christmas decorations (the “new” ones) are about 17 years old. We need to purchase new ones. Just the hanging and taking down of the decorations cost well over $1,000. We also have to pay extra for the electricity that the lights are burning.

The downtown area is growing. As of this writing, only three buildings in the central business district are available for sale or rent. As little as four years ago, half of Main Street was empty.

Yes, we still have a burned-out shell of a building, but it is my hope that the city, the owner and potential buyers can come to some sort of agreement soon in order to rebuild that area.

The burned-out area of Main Street is not the only blighted area that needs to be addressed. We have so many old unsafe houses that need to be torn down. The majority of these houses are in the Adams Avenue and Churchill areas. The problem is that the city must go to Justice Court for a legal order to demolish them.

Then we would need to tear them down, haul them off and dispose of the material. Currently, the estimates I have been given show the costs of tearing these houses down and hauling off the debris to be between $4,500 and $6,500, depending on the size of the building.

Where does this money come from? Where in our tight budget do we find the funds to pay for this? Unfortunately, the bigger problem and expense comes from where to haul it that would not be in violation of state and federal environmental laws. This disposal would add to the cost of each building being demolished.

Would each property owner be willing to raise their city taxes 8 percent to remove two old blighted buildings per year? That is a question we must all answer. All of this deals with community or economic development. If the city looks bad, then newcomers will not want to live here.

We have some of the best schools in the state and nation as proven by their awards. We have a great medical center and hospital here. Our crime rate is very low, and our property costs are comparatively inexpensive. Yet, if people perceive that we are declining, it won’t matter what the facts are!

The General City Budget is made up of real and personal property taxes, sale taxes, auto taxes, police and court fines, business licenses and fees, and county and state rebates. Property taxes last went up 2 percent in 2007. Since 1994 or in the last 21 years, assessed property taxes have only gone up 4.64 mills.

Now, take into account that Eupora has lost approximately $1 million per year in property tax collections since 1999 when five of seven industries closed their doors within an 18-month span and took over 1,800 jobs with them.

We have lost half of our general city income, not raised taxes much at all and yet we still have been able to sustain city services. Oh, we have cut personnel, and we don’t do as much as we used to in terms of street paving and maintenance, but we have done an excellent job of survival with the finances we have.

So where does this leave us when addressing community development? If we count such things as community organization, blight control, city decorations and the Depot, then we actually need about three mills of property tax to cover the actual expenses. That would mean about an 8 percent or two-mill increase in property taxes.

Are the citizens of Eupora willing to pay for that increase, or do we just let things slide? These are the questions your elected officials will have to consider. Nothing is free. I promise to keep looking for every grant I can, but even the “good” grants have some percentage match.

Please begin thinking of these issues. Think about our future. Think about survival of this community. Next week, I will discuss street paving and the options I see for beginning a street-paving program.