November 29, 2017 11:12:04 AM
Columbus' mayor and city council intend to formally seek a joint meeting with the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors to negotiate the terms of a resolution to renew the 2-percent restaurant tax.
The council voted unanimously during a special-call meeting Tuesday morning to send a letter to the board of supervisors requesting the meeting with hopes to remove an impasse between city and county officials on how to divide the tax revenue. It also unanimously rejected a Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau proposal to dedicate $2.2 million in future tax revenue to finish the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater on The Island because the proposal included no funds for city parks and recreation.
Mayor Robert Smith also indicated he doesn't feel CVB, which is nearly fully funded by the tax, is in a position to broker a deal.
"Right now, it's just between the city and the county," Mayor Robert Smith told The Dispatch after Tuesday's meeting. "When those two government entities agree to a joint resolution, then the CVB follows suit."
Smith said the letter would be sent to supervisors later Tuesday.
Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders, who previously told The Dispatch he didn't see any need to meet with the city, said Tuesday he is open to the idea.
"I don't have a problem with it," he said when contacted by The Dispatch. "If they want to meet, that's fine with me."
The restaurant tax levies an extra 2-percent sales tax on customers at businesses where prepared food and beverage revenue is at least $325,000 annually. Its current 10-year term is set to expire in June 2018 unless the Mississippi Legislature renews it during its next session, which begins in January.
Lawmakers have indicated they will not renew the tax if the city and county cannot agree to a joint resolution.
Revenue from the tax, which generated nearly $2 million in Fiscal Year 2017, now is divided only between the CVB for tourism (85 percent) and the Golden Triangle Development LINK for economic development (15 percent). While the county, LINK and CVB had already agreed to a similar division to seek the tax's renewal, city leaders rejected the plan because they want a portion of the funds for parks and recreation.
That led to LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins attempting to broker a deal where the city and county each would get $400,000 annually for their respective recreation departments, the city would get $100,000 per year toward the completion of the amphitheater, the LINK would get $250,000 per year and CVB would get the rest -- a move that would essentially slash the CVB budget in half.
Higgins' proposal left one sticking point with some city officials, particularly Smith, who also want to change the makeup of the CVB board. Smith wants a seven-member board with five appointed by the city and two appointed by the county. Now, the board has nine members, with four each appointed by the city or county and one joint appointment.
Sanders has previously said he would negotiate on the money division, even to the point of the county taking a smaller cut than the city for recreation. But he doesn't plan to budge on the CVB board makeup.
Smith told The Dispatch on Tuesday he was "willing to negotiate" with the county to hammer out a joint resolution, but he wouldn't offer any specifics.
"There is room for compromise to save the tax," he said, simply.
At least two councilmen, Ward 3's Charlie Box and Ward 6's Bill Gavin, have said they don't view the CVB board makeup as a priority, especially when compared to the possibility of losing the tax.
Before voting to reject the CVB proposal, which the organization submitted to the council by letter, Box pressed the mayor and his fellow council members to at least offer some type of counterproposal. That discussion ultimately led to the council vote on the letter to the county.
"I want to keep discussions open," Box said.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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