November 7, 2017 11:15:02 AM
The Lowndes County Board of Supervisors voted by a 3-2 margin Monday to pass the existing resolution for the extension of the 2-percent restaurant tax, which will divide the proceeds only between the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Golden Triangle Development LINK.
That sets the stage for tonight's Columbus City Council meeting, where council members are expected to vote for their own version of the resolution, which would earmark 20 percent of the tax receipts for the city's parks and recreation department.
If tonight's vote goes as expected, there would be no viable resolution to present to the Mississippi Legislature for final approval, said Rep. Gary Chism. The Legislature must renew the tax in its next session or it will expire in July 2018.
"If there are two different resolutions, we probably won't take up either," said Chism, a member of the House Local and Private Legislation Committee, which manages special taxes of this nature. "It wouldn't even meet the requirements of a bill. It would be like sending nothing at all."
The tax, now on a 10-year term, is collected at businesses where prepared food and drink gross revenue is at least $325,000 annually. CVB Director Nancy Carpenter and LINK Director Joe Max Higgins presented what they hoped to be a joint resolution to both the supervisors and the city council in mid-October.
They asked to fix a $250,000 annual contribution to the LINK for the tax, with the rest going to CVB. The tax generated nearly $2 million in Fiscal Year 2017. The restaurant tax revenue makes up almost all of CVB's annual budget.
Supervisors Harry Sanders, Bill Brigham and John Holliman approved the CVB/LINK proposal on Monday. Jeff Smith and Leroy Brooks opposed.
Supes object to city's plan
Supervisors twice tabled the measure before passing it Monday. The second time they tabled it, Brooks asked for the opportunity to speak with city officials to find out what they want.
What he found out is the city wants to lower the floor of businesses that must collect the tax to those who gross at least $100,000 in prepared food and beverage sales, which will bring in more tax revenue overall and minimize any cut the CVB would take in funding.
"They (also) want to change the CVB board composition form nine (members) to seven, with the city having five (members) and the county having two members, and they want 20 percent (of the tax revenue) for recreation," Brooks said. "Short of the county agreeing with that, they propose to go their own way."
Right now, the CVB board is split evenly, with the county and city each appointing four members and jointly appointing the ninth member.
Brigham was quick to object to the city's plan.
"I'm not in favor of those changes," Brigham said. "I say we should go ahead and vote and say we're for the CVB, we're for the 2-percent tax, we are for spending it in our communities and then (the city) they can negotiate with the (CVB board) on some of these things if they want to."
Smith urged supervisors to table the vote until both the supervisors and councilmen sit down to see if they can agree on a resolution.
"Again, I think we should allow the city to address it from their end (at tonight's council meeting), and at some point as quickly as possible schedule a meeting of both bodies to discuss this and see if we can come to a conclusion we can agree on. I think to vote to approve something we know is not going to be supported by the city is counter-productive and is going to draw us further and further apart and create more problems."
Sanders said the city was trying to strong-arm the county into accepting a resolution it could not support.
"We didn't have a problem until the last three or four weeks when all the sudden the city decided they want something," he said. "They threatened to do away with the CVB if we don't give them what they want. ... It's blackmail and extortion."
Brooks quickly objected to that description.
"The problem is, we are talking about one another instead of talking to one another," Brooks said.
"It's the truth," Sanders responded.
"It's the truth as you perceive it," Brooks said. "It doesn't help the situation. I've never heard anybody using (the words) extortion or blackmail. The city council and the mayor have a right to choose what they want to do whether we like it or not. I don't want to be part of a fight with the city. I really don't."
Smith said he stood by his call to delay the vote.
"All I'm saying is why don't we sit down?" Smith said. "Obviously, there's a difference of opinion on this. All I want to do is find common ground."
All eyes on city council
Now all eyes turn to tonight's city council meeting.
"I's a tennis match," Higgins said. "The guy with the big serve has hit a rocket. Now, we're all sitting in the stands to see if the guy on the other side of the net is going to let it burn by him or hit it back."
Even if the council approves its own version of the resolution tonight, Higgins said he's confident an agreement could yet be worked out.
"The funny thing is, there is probably a solution in here if they could sit at the table and work it out," Higgins said. "I think it's only a matter of a few hundred thousand dollars. I could see a situation where the CVB agrees to give the city $200,000 for its parks and the county the same amount. I don't think that has to be in the resolution. I think you could have an inter-local agreement to do that. That's my solution. I bet you (Columbus Mayor) Robert (Smith) won't like it and Harry (Sanders) won't like it, but I think Nancy is resolved to the fact that she's going to have to take a cut."
Higgins said he would be happy to mediate a discussion between the council and supervisors, if asked.
"I don't think either side has a problem with the LINK's agreement in this," Higgins said. "But if we were asked to participate in a group and let's go over the what ifs, we're damn good at that."
Carpenter said she is also agreeable to sitting down for a joint meeting between the supervisors and council.
"Our board is absolutely willing to listen and negotiate," Carpenter said. "I still feel like things can be worked out. The work of the CVB is just too important to give up on."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]h.com.
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