November 21, 2017 10:18:16 AM
The Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau offered its own compromise Monday to the debate between Columbus and Lowndes County on how to divide future 2-percent restaurant tax revenue.
Whether the organization's efforts will resonate, however, remains to be seen.
During its regular monthly meeting, CVB's board unanimously voted to offer the city $250,000 a year from the tax revenue for up to 10 years to finish work on the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater under construction at The Island. In return, the board is asking that the 2-percent tax funds be divided between CVB -- which leads local tourism efforts -- and the Golden Triangle Development LINK, an economic development agency, without the city or county receiving separate cuts for recreation.
What that could look like, CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter explained, is the city issuing bonds to complete the amphitheater and CVB committing to service that debt.
"It would complete funding for the amphitheater," Carpenter said. "Right now, (the city) doesn't know where it will get that money."
Phase I of the amphitheater, which includes a stage with an open seating area and largely funded by the Legislature, is finished. The second phase, which would add seating for about 3,500 as well as gates/enclosures to accommodate paid events, is estimated to cost more than $1 million. The Legislature has so far dedicated no funding toward the second phase.
To raise the $250,000 each year, Carpenter and CVB certified public accountant Tom Buckley proposed an array of cuts to the organization's budget, the largest of which would be a $50,000 slash to marketing/advertising.
"(We did this knowing) everything we cut reduces our exposure to people," Buckley said.
The 2-percent tax, for which the current 10-year term is set to expire in June 2018, collects additional sales tax from customers at businesses where at least $325,000 of gross revenue comes from prepared food and beverage sales.
The tax raised nearly $2 million in Fiscal Year 2017, 85 percent of which funded CVB and 15 percent (about $210,000) went to the LINK.
CVB chair: 'It's doomsday' if tax sunsets
CVB and the LINK previously asked the county supervisors and city council to resolve to renew the tax, with the LINK getting an annual set amount of $250,000 and CVB receiving the rest. But city leaders, led by Mayor Robert Smith, pushed for the city to receive $400,000 for recreation from the tax, as well as $100,000 per year for the amphitheater.
The city also wants the CVB board reorganized with seven members -- five of whom the council would appoint and two county appointments. Now, the CVB board has nine members, including four appointments each from the city and county and one joint appointment.
LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins attempted to broker a deal between the city and county, with each entity receiving $400,000 for recreation and the city receiving $100,000 for the amphitheater. County supervisors have agreed in principle to the money division, even noting they would accept a lesser share than the city for recreation, but the two entities remain at an impasse on the CVB board makeup.
Further, county board of supervisors president Harry Sanders has told The Dispatch multiple times he's fine with the county receiving no recreation funds from the restaurant tax, as long as the city doesn't either.
State legislators have indicated a joint resolution is necessary to renew the tax. If city and county leaders can't reach an agreement, the tax could sunset -- simply roll off the books -- next summer.
On Monday, CVB Board Chair Dewitt Hicks said Higgins' proposal -- which would essentially cut almost CVB's budget in half -- would "cripple" the organization. Losing the tax, however, would "devastate," even "end" the CVB.
"We have a sunset provision staring us in the face," Hicks told The Dispatch after the meeting. "If it sunsets, CVB won't exist. That's it. It's doomsday. ... I feel (with the proposed budget cuts) we've done everything we could possibly do."
Carpenter, who said she remains hopeful, acknowledged the CVB's plan didn't address recreation. She noted through advertising, marketing and bidding on events at city and county parks, CVB already contributes plenty in that area.
She also suggested the city using funds from the 2-percent hotel/motel tax -- of which it keeps 100 percent -- to supplement its parks system. That tax, she said, raises an average of $25,000 to $30,000 per month ($300,000 to $360,000 per year), but contributed about $58,000 to the city in October.
Joseph Mickens and Stephen Jones, Columbus councilmen for wards 2 and 5, respectively, told The Dispatch Monday the CVB's proposal isn't good enough.
Mickens dismissed it outright, simply saying he "wouldn't even consider it."
Jones elaborated a bit more, noting the city's parks and recreation needs -- specifically upgrades and upkeep needed at Propst Park and the city's community centers -- were priority.
"Helping with the amphitheater is nice, but it ain't doing anything for our neighborhood parks," he said.
Councilmen Charlie Box and Bill Gavin, of wards 3 and 6, respectively, said they would at least consider CVB's proposal -- though both noted they like Higgins' plan better.
"I'm glad somebody is putting an idea on the table so we can talk about it," Box said. "People are trying, and we have to try, too."
Box further noted the mayor's sticking point -- the CVB board makeup -- was not a priority of his, especially compared to the prospect of losing the tax.
"As far as I'm concerned, that (CVB) board can stay just like it is," he said.
The Dispatch could not reach Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor or Ward 4 Councilman Fred Jackson by press time.
Smith did not return calls or messages seeking comment.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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