By Matt Wright
During this evening’s Board of Commissioners (BOC) meeting at City Hall, a proposal for a property tax increase in Lakeland was put forward, generating substantial debate and a different vision for the future of Lakeland. The new proposed rate of $1.19 per $100 of assessed value received initial approval with a vote of 4-1. Mayor Josh Roman, Vice Mayor Wesley Wright, Commissioner Jim Atkinson, and Commissioner Michele Dial all voted in favor, while Commissioner Connie McCarter expressed dissent. Lakeland boasts the lowest property tax rate in Shelby County, currently at $1.04. Even with an increase to $1.19, Lakeland would maintain the lowest rate, albeit inching closer to the next lowest rate of $1.28 in Arlington. Similarly, Germantown and Collierville have announced their intentions to implement tax increases in response to inflation and various projects. If approved, Germantown’s new rate would be $1.83, and Collierville would have the highest rate among the suburbs at $1.84. The adoption of a new tax rate in Lakeland requires two readings and subsequent votes, with the next vote scheduled for Thursday, June 15, 2023.
While the BOC all acknowledged they would prefer the tax rate to remain at $1.04, the four voting in favor of the increase believe the proposed increase will garner significant support. Mayor Roman disclosed plans to utilize the additional revenue to acquire older hotels and properties in Lakeland, specifically mentioning the Econo Lodge and the Refuge Church. Those properties would be converted into a top-notch Lakeland Recreation Center through a partnership with the YMCA. Renderings of the facility showcase its impressive amenities, including a pool, lazy river, gym, and baseball field, among other things. The YMCA would contribute $5 to $6 million in funding towards the estimated $17 million construction cost while the City of Lakeland funds the balance. The YMCA would also manage the center, while ownership would belong to the city. Further details on that story can be found here.
Mayor Roman also highlighted the increased revenue from the tax increase would help facilitate the purchase of the Relax Inn, located at I-40 and Canada Road, plus the five acres of property behind the motel. The mayor said there has been some preliminary discussions to put in a Shelby County Sheriff Crime Prevention Office at that location should the city acquire the property ensuring enhanced law enforcement within Lakeland. He added that facility could even become a future location for a Lakeland Police Department at some point in the future. For years, residents have expressed concerns about the crime associated with the hotels off the interstate, and Mayor Roman expressed a strong commitment to addressing the issue by revitalizing the area. However, Commissioner McCarter expressed her concern with the plan saying the city would be losing the hotel tax generated by those two hotels. She also said she hears rumors about crimes at those hotels but didn’t know if that was “hearsay” or a fact. She proposed the possibility of placing a SCSO office where Windward Slopes Park is currently located instead of purchasing the Relax Inn, but that amendment received no support.
Vice Mayor Wright, Commissioner Atkinson and Commissioner Dial also expressed their support for the increase saying it would radically change that part of Lakeland. “Being able to redevelop that quadrant is very exciting. Nobody wants a tax increase but look at everything we would be getting,” Ms. Dial said. Commissioner Atkinson, himself a former City Manager for Lakeland, said “I’m never in favor of a tax increase for operations but that’s not what this is,” adding the city is well run on the current $1.04 tax rate. Mr. Atkinson said the BOC all previously agreed to “aggressively” pursue redeveloping those areas off the interstate and this is a step towards reaching that goal. “100% of the people I’ve spoken to want that area redeveloped, but it doesn’t happen by itself.”
Negotiations with the property owners of the Econo Lodge and The Refuge church are currently underway, and the BOC also approved the City Manager to start negotiating with the Relax Inn motel immediately. Mr. Roman told Lakeland Currents if a mutual agreement cannot be reached, the city is already prepared to employ condemnation, a procedure enabled by eminent domain which grants local governments the authority to acquire privately owned real estate for civic purposes. Mayor Roman emphasized the importance of a fair deal for the property owners as well as the city’s progress moving forward, stating, “We want a beneficial arrangement for all parties involved while driving positive changes for Lakeland.”