The Lowndes County Board of Supervisors and Columbus City Council met Thursday morning at Trotter Convention Center to discuss the terms of a potential joint resolution to renew the 2-percent restaurant tax. When it was over, very little had been resolved. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
December 8, 2017 11:15:04 AM
A frustrated Leroy Brooks stood up, put on his jacket and started gathering his belongings from the table in the Trotter Convention Center meeting room at which he had been seated for about two hours Thursday morning.
The Lowndes County District 5 supervisor, who had cast himself throughout the morning as a fair-minded voice of compromise, had heard enough.
"We haven't resolved anything," he said. "Where are we going from here? When we leave here, we're no better off than we came. ... We're stuck."
His gesture served as a threat to walk out early from a meeting of the Columbus mayor, city council and county supervisors aimed to identify terms for a joint resolution to renew a countywide 2-percent restaurant sales tax. Ultimately, though, he sat down again and waited for the often contentious meeting, which highlighted more disagreement among city and county officials than it rectified, to adjourn moments later.
City councilmen had requested the meeting where the two bodies agreed to simply discuss the issues rather than take any formal action.
While the two sides agreed on a few minor points, two central issues -- whether the city or county would get any of the tax funds for recreation and the makeup of the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau Board -- remain unresolved.
The restaurant tax collects an extra 2-percent from customers who buy prepared food and beverages from establishments where total annual revenue for those items is at least $325,000, although on Thursday both sides agreed the tax should apply to all restaurants regardless of revenue.
The tax raised nearly $2 million in Fiscal Year 2017. Of that total, 85 percent funded the CVB's tourism promotion efforts and the rest went to the Golden Triangle LINK for economic development.
The current 10-year term for the tax expires in June 2018, and the Mississippi Legislature must renew it during its upcoming session, which begins next month, or the tax will roll off the books. Without a joint resolution between the city council and board of supervisors, legislators have indicated it will not be renewed.
For Harry Sanders, board of supervisors president, Thursday's meeting made losing the tax altogether more possible.
"Unless the city backs down on some issues, this meeting will not have been productive," he told The Dispatch after the joint session.
Mayor Robert Smith, though, viewed Thursday's events much more optimistically. He plans to meet again soon with Sanders and is confident the two sides could strike a deal "sooner than later."
"You got the feeling of where each side is on all the issues," Smith said. "I think it's going to work itself out in a short period of time."
CVB board makeup
City and county leaders agreed Thursday to keep the CVB's board at nine members and make them all at-large, rather than require specific representation for restaurants, hotels and historic homeowners.
They even agreed the city and county should each appoint four members to the CVB board. But they met an impasse on how to handle the ninth appointment.
Under the previous agreement, Sanders and Smith agree on a joint appointment. But leaders on both sides lamented Thursday that process has taken up to a year in the past, meanwhile leaving the CVB board a member short.
Brooks offered what he believed to be the "fairest" solution, allowing each side an opportunity to appoint the ninth member for a certain length of time on a rotating basis. He suggested flipping a coin to determine which entity chose first.
"The real deal is about power," Brooks said. "It's about who will control the CVB. ... Let everybody play with a little power for a little while."
The mayor and city council all seemed to agree strongly with Brooks' suggestion, as did District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith.
But Sanders, along with supervisors Bill Brigham and John Holliman, of districts 2 and 3, respectively, sought to leave the appointment process as-is. Sanders, specifically, feared such an arrangement would set up an unending cycle of reprisals -- one side "getting kicked to the curb" -- when the power changed hands.
"The only fair thing to do is to be neutral all the way," Sanders said.
Brooks then accused Sanders of "manufacturing worst-case scenarios."
"You're assuming the worst," he said. "I don't think anybody is interested in mistreating anybody. ... In that frame of mind, we'll never find (a solution)."
Sanders kept pressing, bluntly asking at one point why he and the mayor shouldn't be allowed to continue to handle the ninth appointment.
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens felt obliged to answer.
"Because of your statement that we 'F up' everything," Mickens said, referring to a critique Sanders made against the city in a previous interview with The Dispatch. "How are you going to compromise when you say we are incapable (of doing things right)?"
At first, Brooks suggested a four-year term with his rotation plan, but later City Attorney Jeff Turnage offered a two-year rotation as a compromise.
Brigham seemed open to that suggestion.
"I might would be willing to consider that," he said.
The city maintained its desire Thursday to receive 20 percent (roughly $400,000) of the tax money annually for a major renovation project at Propst Park, as well as an additional $100,000 each year to finish the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater on The Island.
Both entities agreed the LINK should receive $250,000 each year from the tax, which is the amount the organization requested.
Propst Park, built in 1954, had only seen "band-aid" repairs over the last 63 years and needed a roughly $1.6 million overhaul to stay viable and competitive, Mayor Smith argued.
The mayor's position also highlighted city concerns that a recent split of the city and county parks systems will force older city facilities to compete with the county's means to build new ones.
Originally, supervisors adopted a resolution designating restaurant tax funds for the CVB and LINK. But after the city's subsequent resolution asked for a cut for recreation, the county began to argue it should also get a share of the funds for its recreation department -- whether it was the same amount as the city or slightly less.
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones attacked that point on Thursday, pointedly criticizing Sanders.
"He's OK with not getting any of the money as long as the city don't get it," he said. "You only want money if the city gets money. That doesn't make any sense. Either you want the money or you don't."
Sanders maintained during and after Thursday's meeting that neither the city nor county should receive direct appropriations from the restaurant tax for recreation. Instead, he believes if either had a special project -- such as the amphitheater or Propst Park -- that needs funding, it should appeal to the CVB board for the money.
"But if the city gets (direct) money from the tax for recreation, I think the county should get the same amount," he said.
'Don't wreck us'
Restaurant tax revenue provides nearly all of CVB's annual budget, and if both the city and county take $400,000 per year for recreation, along with the city getting $100,000 for the amphitheater, it would slash CVB funding by roughly half.
The CVB board already offered the city $2.2 million over the next 10 years to finish the amphitheater, a gesture aimed at resolving the tax issue without further harming the CVB. City councilmen recently unanimously rejected the proposal.
On Thursday, CVB chair Dewitt Hicks and executive director Nancy Carpenter addressed councilmen and supervisors during the joint session, again pleading not only for the tax's renewal but also for more consideration in the negotiations.
"(Since the 1980s) I've seen the CVB go from $400,000 (annual budget) to $2 million," Hicks said. "We must have done something right. ... Don't wreck us. It seems to me that's where we're headed."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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