Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Progress Hattiesburg

I’ve been asked to weigh in on Progress Hattiesburg. As I’ve said before, I’ll always to try to tell you what I think. I’ll never try to pretend that I don’t struggle with a decision if in fact I do. This is an instance where I have conflicting views.

I’ve watched over the last several years as the idea evolved, narrowing its focus to investments on infrastructure. When the proposal appeared a couple of years ago in the form of $60 million for some infrastructure, some recreation and other vague projects, I was definitely against it.

This year, however, the concept brought to the table was something much more concrete. The money would only go to infrastructure. When I campaigned last fall, I said there had to be an investment made. To sustain our city and our region’s growth, we must make an investment in the roads, bridges, water, sewer and drainage. We have grown too large, too fast- which is not a bad thing at all, and no specific person or administration is to blame. The older parts of our city, such as downtown and Ward 4, have infrastructure that is nearing 100 years old.

I still believe the investment has to be made.

Is Progress Hattiesburg the best way? You could make the argument either way and have a valid point.

When the Hattiesburg delegation met about the issue, a majority felt that we needed a 5-0 vote from the Council to justify putting the measure on the ballot in November. As meetings with the mayor and council members progressed, I really thought the possible 1% sales tax increase would be accompanied with some property tax relief. Both of those conditions fell short, and if my decision was based on solely on those two factors, I would have to vote no.

However, I’m one of two delegation members who actually live in the city. I’m proud I live in Hattiesburg. I love the Parkhaven Neighborhood in the Avenues. I would live nowhere else. I believe there’s a sense of community you don’t find anywhere else.

From living in the city, I can tell you with absolute certainty that an investment in the core of our city is ten years past due. It’s an investment that will cost a lot of money, money that we won’t find by cutting a few city employees here or eliminating some waste there (though I do think both of those actions are a good start).

From an economic development standpoint, I can tell you that if the central city of a region (the “hub” if you pardon the pun) starts to falter, the entire region will begin to fail. It’s a proven concept, and there are several examples in our own state to which you could point.

Whether or not we want to do it, the investment has to be made.

However, there are certain realities we need to acknowledge. We are overtaxed. Sometimes our services are not what they should be. This proposal would hurt some small businesses in the area.

Furthermore, our people are discontent that we passed a 2% convention center tax on restaurants and liquor several years ago, and we don’t know where that money actually goes. We know it goes to pay off the convention center, but when was the last time a person could get on their computer and see the breakdown of where all the different monies go? How much more do we have to pay on the convention center? Which projects will the money to go to fund next? What accountability and transparency are readily available? These questions could also apply to the 1% tax on hotels.

I will tell you from watching it first-hand that our Mayor did everything he could to make a property tax cut happen for the people living in Hattiesburg. While I haven’t agreed with him on everything, I do not think it’s healthy for people to oppose everything Mayor DuPree proposes just because he is Mayor DuPree. This does not help us to move forward.

Two things are likely.

Progress Hattiesburg will most likely die in the Senate this year.

Mayor DuPree and the entire Hattiesburg City Council will most likely be re-elected next year.

We must decide what our fate will be. Partisan and racial bickering will not save the city and move the region forward. Cooperation and compromise, paired with fiscal responsibility, transparency and accountability, will reverse the cycle. We must choose. If we continually fail to respond to the warning signs of a crumbling infrastructure, then we make that choice, albeit the wrong one.

Hopefully, both sides will continue to talk and churn out a proposal we can all rally around next year. In the mean time, I will commit to helping achieve some transparency on where our tax dollars go- so that basic, ordinary citizens who live on Venetian Way or Arlington Loop or in the Oaks District or in Palmer’s Crossing can again trust that they indeed have a local and state government who works for them. Once that trust is again established, then a proposal such as Progress Hattiesburg will have a more receptive audience.


John Leek said...


Nicole said...

Thanks for the response Toby!