The Starkville Board of Aldermen approved a $272,600 bid Tuesday night for sidewalks to be added along sections of Highway 12.
Just over 1,800 feet of sidewalk will be added thanks to the project, and construction is expected to begin within thirty days.
Simmons Erosion Control, Inc. was the low bidder for the project, two other bids were considered, but each cited the cost of the project as at least $100,000 more expensive, the higher of the two bids being $597,747.
City Engineer Edward Kemp said the bids were higher than initially estimated but blamed market conditions for the inflated prices as well as the extensive labor costs associated with rerouting traffic for construction along Highway 12.
"One of the main things I think was underestimated was the amount of effort that was going to be required for traffic control," Kemp said. "If you'll remember traveling along Highway 12 when they were doing the median work, they had to close those lanes of traffic just from a safety standpoint. Very time intensive, very labor intensive to move all of that traffic control equipment out there each morning then to remove it at the end of the day."
The Mississippi Department of Transportation, Kemp said, sets regulations and standards for what time of the day the lanes can be closed and dictates when lanes must be closed for safety reasons, taking the decision away from city officials.
MDOT gave Starkville approximately $222,000 to use on improvements for Highway 12 that will go towards the sidewalks approved for construction Tuesday, and the remaining $50,000 will come from bond money the city has set aside for sidewalk improvements rather than the general fund.
Kemp said the market was also working against the city in terms of keeping costs low.
"Every contractor that we talk to is extremely busy," Kemp said. "A lot of them are having trouble finding enough staff. I think we're just kind of experiencing a construction boom right now."
While the funds did not have a set expiration date, Kemp advised Aldermen that it was best to spend the money given to Starkville as quickly as possible to avoid a situation where the funds ceased to be available.
Simmons Erosion Control, Inc. has worked with the city before, most recently on the Locksley Way sidewalk improvements, and Kemp had high praises for the contractor's work, specifically boasting how few construction issues experienced during the contractor's last project.
Kemp said the planned contract to be presented to the contractor would have a 120 day limit on the construction, though he admitted late December through January were not ideal construction times due to potential weather issues.
However, because of the existing road adjacent to the project, Kemp said installing the sidewalks should be much easier.
"For the most part, all of this work would be done on an existing roadway, so you have a little bit better chance of getting it done," Kemp said.
Sections of sidewalk will be added to the Spring Street intersection with Highway 12, Avenue of Patriots to Taylor Street and near Lindbergh Boulevard. The stretch from Patriot's Avenue to Taylor Street will be the longest by far, totaling 1,669 feet in length.
An alternate bid for the project was also available for Aldermen to consider, but it would have added $155,076 to the project's costs.
Alderwoman Sandra Sistrunk of Ward 2, the Board's budget chair, said while she was confident $50,000 could be found in bond money for the base bid, she had doubts about the larger price tag being feasible.
Sistrunk echoed Kemp's concerns over potentially having the MDOT money taken away.
"I don't want to lose those state funds," Sistrunk said. "We've had them for a while now. They've been generous in letting us carry these projects over year to year, but I think the city clerk will tell you that each year you get a little further from that original allocation that the process of keeping and maintaining those funds just becomes harder and harder."
Mayor Lynn Spruill said she was disappointed the city's dollars did not go as far as initially anticipated toward the project and noted a particularly glaring omission from the project due to costs.
"The project leaves out a section that's probably as important as any section we did; we just didn't have the money for it, and that's that section in front of Pecan Acres," Spruill said. "Maybe at some point we can find those funds to add that to it because I think that is a critical location for sidewalks."
The locations included in the project, Spruill said, were deserving of sidewalks and well-traversed enough to justify installing them.
During a public hearing held to discuss zoning placetype map changes in the nearly finished unified development code, a discussion broke out regarding a proposed permit fee for property owners looking to rent their properties on short-term bases.
Short-term rentals, a practice popularized by the company AirBnB, allow a property owner to charge visitors a fee, generally by the day, to stay at their property. As a business model, it is most viable in heavy tourist communities as prices are generally lower than hotels.
Madison resident David Buchanan, who owns several properties in Starkville both commercial and residential, approached Aldermen to protest the proposed $300 permit fee, arguing it would unfairly punish property owners looking to increase the market of short-term rentals in Starkville.
"I wanted to at least raise my concerns as a local businessman, as a local property owner and also as someone who actually utilizes one of my properties as an AirBnB place," Buchanan said.
Buchanan said short-term rentals vitalized the local economy by bringing people to town during peak times, such as football season.
"You know as well as I do when people come to town, whether it's in a short-term rental, a hotel, a longer-term rental, they're going to spend money in the Starkville, Oktibbeha County area," Buchanan said.
Haphazardly regulating short-term rentals, Buchanan argued, would drive the same people who would have stayed in Starkville to nearby competing towns, such as Tupelo, Columbus and Louisville.
Buchanan also took issue with other proposed regulations along with the fee, such as a restriction that would require all short-term renters to be Starkville residents.
"Am I being discriminated against just because I don't live within the city limits of Starkville? Yes," Buchanan said. "What if somebody in Starkville wants to buy something in Jackson or Oxford, God forbid, or somewhere on the coast or in Destin, and they have those regulations?"
Buchanan wondered why a $300 "tax" was not being charged to long-term renters, such as college students, and said he felt the blurry line between long and short-term rentals was further evidence the regulations were unjustly targeting certain people like himself.
"I just want a fair playing field," Buchanan said.
Alderman Hamp Beatty of Ward 5 claimed responsibility for the proposed regulations. Beatty said he worried about the ability for people trying to own homes and live in Starkville to compete with corporations looking to buy up large amounts of property as the short-term rental industry continues to grow.
"This is and will become an issue as more homes in our neighborhoods are purchased for AirBnB properties," Beatty said.
Beatty said the idea behind the regulations was not to collect taxes but to protect Starkville neighborhoods from being "exploited."
Mayor Lynn Spruill reminded Aldermen and those in attendance that the $300 permit fee was in no way set in stone and changes would continue to be made and considered as the unified development code was scrutinized over several upcoming public hearings.
The permit fee, Spruill said, was just one idea that was floated to deal with a potential problem, pointing out that doing so, exploring new ideas and debating them, was what she and the Board were there to do.
"There is no tax; there is no fee; there is no nothing," Spruill said.
The unified development code is currently available for viewing on the city of Starkville's website. Public sessions to discuss the 300-plus page document will be held on Oct. 3 and 22 at the Sportsplex and City Hall respectively at 5:30 p.m.
More public hearings on the document will also be held Nov. 12 at City Hall at the meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Aldermen will then hold two public hearings as well on Dec. 3 and 17 at their regularly scheduled meetings.