November 12, 2017 1:46:54 AM
A proposal for compromise has emerged in the standoff between Lowndes County and the city of Columbus over the renewal of the 2-percent restaurant tax.
Last week, both entities passed conflicting resolutions for the tax, which currently collects an extra 2 percent from prepared food and beverage sales at businesses where such sales gross at least $325,000 annually.
State lawmakers must approve the renewal of the tax, and they have indicated city and county resolutions must match before the state takes up the issue.
County supervisors passed a resolution in favor of dividing tax revenues as they currently are, between the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Golden Triangle Development LINK.
City councilmen approved a resolution asking for 20 percent of the tax's revenue, which would have been about $360,000 next year, along with $100,000 per year to help complete the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater on The Island. The city's resolution also seeks to reduce the CVB's nine-member board to seven members, with five city appointees and two from the county. The CVB's board currently includes four city appointees, four county appointees and one joint appointee.
Additionally, the city's resolution seeks to "remove the floor," which would mean all restaurants collect the tax, regardless of their gross food and beverage revenue.
With the conflicting resolutions, it's unlikely the Legislature will renew the tax, which is on a 10-year term set to expire in July 2018. The tax generated $2 million in FY 2017.
LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins sent the proposal to city and county officials in the hopes of finding some middle ground.
Higgins' proposal offers $400,000 each to the city and county for recreational funding. With that funding, both entities would be responsible for the oversight of festivals in their areas of authority, rather than the CVB. The proposal also includes $250,000 for the LINK. The CVB would get the remainder of its money.
Further, Higgins' proposal suggests leaving the CVB's board as is and, if the tax gets renewed for another 10 years, providing $100,000 to the city for the amphitheater. It also calls to remove the floor from restaurant tax collections, which could generate an estimated $70,000 per year in extra revenue.
Higgins said he was asked -- by someone other than an elected official -- to offer a proposal. He said he's less concerned about whether the entities take his proposal as-is than he is he about getting them to talk through the standoff.
"I'm OK if someone grabs a machine gun and shoots it to smithereens," Higgins said, "but I just wanted the conversation. I've thrown out an example of an idea. Now let's get some sons-of-b*****s together and talk about it."
All of the county supervisors received Higgins' proposal. Higgins said he also sent it to city attorney Jeff Turnage.
Higgins said Mayor Robert Smith, who did not respond to multiple calls for comment for this story, indicated he's not interested in the proposal.
'We will be crucified'
Every councilman The Dispatch reached said they were unaware of Higgins' proposal, but several said they would be open to finding some sort of common ground.
"I'm hoping that we can compromise on something," Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones said. "The city is in the county, so we should be able to work together and compromise whenever is necessary. But it can't be one-sided all the time. It has to be in the best interests of everyone."
Jones said he wasn't familiar with the terms of Higgins' proposal, and declined to comment on it specifically.
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens said he was happy with the city's resolution as approved. He also declined to comment on Higgins' proposal, having not seen it.
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box said he liked Higgins' proposal and would be in favor of it -- but more importantly, the city and county have to compromise.
"We have to do something," he said. "We can't let this money leave. It's crazy for us to give away $2 million because we can't negotiate with each other."
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin agreed the city and county need to talk about the tax renewal.
"This thing will go away and it will be devastating to the city and county," he said. "I'm certainly willing to make considerations on my part and help things go forward."
Box said the city has the same right as the county to have input on the 2-percent tax. Still, he had a dire warning about failing to renew the tax, and said he'll push for a compromise if he gets a chance.
"I don't want to be the one labeled as a city councilman in a council that threw away $2 million," Box said. "We will be crucified in this city if we do that, and we should. We have fiduciary responsibility, and ... if we don't take care of the city's money, then we ought to just step down, the way I see it.
'I think it's more than fair'
Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders said he would be happy with the proposal Higgins offered.
He said the county can use the money to help in its recreation improvement efforts, which include ongoing talks with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks for the use of Lake Lowndes, potentially using a West Lowndes school as a recreational center, and a $300,000 commitment to build another recreational facility near Concord Road.
"I think the county's happy with what Joe Max has tried to broker," Sanders said. "I don't think the county would have any problem with it."
District 2 Supervisor Bill Brigham and District 3 Supervisor John Holliman, likewise, told The Dispatch they'd be interested in considering the proposal, though Brigham said it might need to be "tinkered" with.
District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks was less enthusiastic, but said he wants both entities to talk about the disagreement.
"I'm only interested in the city and county sitting down and talking," Brooks said. "They're the two governing authorities. Since we're all grownups, we don't need anyone to mediate for us."
District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith said he got the proposal but hadn't yet had time to review it.
Sanders said he was aware Smith expressed a lack of interest in the proposal. He wasn't sure that the deal could move forward without the mayor's approval. Still, he warned that the county will not accept Columbus' resolution.
"There's no way in the world that I'm going to go along with what the city proposed in their deal," Sanders said. "It's unreasonable. There's been a counter offered to them. I'm all in favor of it. It's up to the city. I think it's more than fair."
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