Levee Board Talking Tax Hikes | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Levee Board Talking Tax Hikes

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The Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District Levee Board head Billy Orr agreed to continue a meeting to analyze possible tax hikes to fund flood control along the Pearl River.

The Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District Levee Board may be gearing up for a district expansion to pay for a proposed flood-control plan for the Pearl River.

Waggoner Engineering owner Joe Waggoner suggested the board recess last week until Oct. 27 while his company gathers pertinent information on what the district would need to do to fund a combination levee expansion and river impoundment for the flood-prone river.

"We'd ... like to talk to you about restarting your engines in re-engaging with the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) about moving forward on the completion of the feasibility document and on the concurrent path dealing with what this district will look like in the future, what the dynamics of the district will be, (and what) the footprint of this district and the resource base will be," Waggoner said.

Waggoner explained that the board would need a hydrological and geographic analysis, as well as a tax-base analysis before moving ahead any further.

The board only recently managed to convince the Corps to continue the feasibility study of a flood-control plan containing a lake for recreational and real-estate development. Last year, Corps Project Manager Doug Kamien made it clear that the Corps would only consider an expansion of current levees around the river as the available method to avoid a historic flood like the inundation of 1979. For years prior to that, members of the board insisted the Corps include some form of lake as a component of flood control—either as a leveeless retainer reservoir or as a purely aesthetic addition to a levee expansion.

Kamien refused to budge on the inclusion of any form of impoundment this year, however, and terminated the flood-control study. Members of the board pressed the Mississippi congressional delegation to strong-arm the Corps, and in September, Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army Civil Works Division, sent a letter to delegation members, assuring them that the Corps was on board with studying a one-lake plan.

"I have been advised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that they will resume the Pearl River feasibility study, with inclusion of the locally preferred one-lake alternative, provided funds to continue the study are included in the Fiscal Year 2011 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act," Darcy wrote, adding that study will begin "as expeditiously as possible" after the appropriation.

Corps spokesman Kavanaugh Breazeale said the Corps would be including more than one levee and impoundment plan in the feasibility study, but he did not name examples this early in the process.

Jackson oilman John McGowan now advocates for a lake-only plan—with no more levees— that he says is big enough to offer 100 percent flood control in the event of another 1979 flood. McGowan said this month that a lake-only plan would cost $150 million, while Waggoner Engineering earlier estimated that a combination levees and lake plan would cost about $605 million.

All numbers are debatable, however, with the Corps claiming that an earlier two-lake version of McGowan's plan would cost more than $1 billion and Waggoner Engineering saying the $605 million lake/levee combination could cost less than their original assessment.

Either way, the district would have to expand and raise property taxes in order to cover the district's 50 percent share of the cost. The federal government demands a 50-percent share from the district in all aspects of flood control, from actual construction to the cost of studies leading to construction.

Breazeale could offer no price on the cost of continuing the study this month, but Jackson city lobbyist John Waites said congressional representatives were already making moves to put earmarked financing for the federal government's half of the study in upcoming appropriation legislation.

"There is funding in the senate version of the FY 2011 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, put in by two senators," said Waites. "I think that will survive whenever a bill is produced, maybe in the lame-duck session, or it could conceivably be early next year. If more is needed, I think they will support it. But in any event, that is the money designed to be used to go forward with the decision document and moving ahead with the study that had been suspended."

Mississippi Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker have shown support for flood control for the Pearl River and are most likely the two senators who inserted the earmark. The offices of Cochran and Wicker did not immediately return calls last Friday.

Local property owners may balk at tax increases, whether they cover the cost of construction of levees, lakes or both. Last year, the Corps estimated that the cost of merely expanding the levees would be $206 million, with the federal government picking up roughly half of that. Downtown Jackson Partners President Ben Allen wrote in January that local voters would not easily agree to cover the estimated cost of the levees.

"This local share would have to be raised with taxes in Hinds and Rankin counties. A voter referendum would be needed for an increase in property taxes (to fund the levees), a legislatively approved sales-tax increase vote or some other citizen-approved tax increase, and 60 percent of the voters in both counties would be necessary for approval," Allen wrote on the Downtown Jackson Partners blog. "From Puckett to Pisgah, Edwards to Flora, Jackson to Pearl and on," (the tax increase would need) 60 percent approval. ... This will never happen."

Currently, no reliable figures exist for the cost of a combination lake/levee plan or a lakes-only plan, because the Corps feasibility study—which will determine project costs—is not complete. But mayoral members of the levee board, including Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads and Richland Mayor Mark Scarborough, say they are leery of adding an oppressive amount of new taxes to their property owners' real estate. A tax increase would likely affect their mayoral re-elections.

The Levee Board voted to continue the meeting and discussion Oct. 27 at 10 a.m.

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