December 16, 2017 10:04:13 PM
Negotiations to renew Lowndes County's 2-percent restaurant tax took a potentially fatal step backward Friday when the board of supervisors redoubled their efforts to keep any of the tax from being directly distributed for recreation.
Supervisors voted Friday, by a 3-2 margin, to amend their originally approved resolution to renew the tax but only by agreeing to require all businesses that sell prepared food and beverages collect the tax -- rather than just businesses that gross $325,000 annually in those sales -- as well as making all nine Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau board members at-large instead of tapping one each to represent restaurants, hotels and historic homes.
However, just as in the county's original resolution approved in November, it would appropriate $250,000 to the Golden Triangle Development LINK for economic development and the rest to CVB for tourism.
"We're not changing," said District 2 Supervisor Bill Brigham after the meeting. "We passed our resolution today."
But the county's resolution still doesn't match that of the Columbus City Council. The city has requested $400,000 annually from the tax for its recreation department and $100,000 per year to complete the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater -- all of which would come from what has been the CVB's share.
District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, who along with District 4's Jeff Smith opposed the county's resolution, said he believes the city's requests are fair, especially considering more than 90 percent of the tax each year is collected at restaurants located in Columbus.
"It's like the county is wanting to control it," he told The Dispatch after the meeting. "I don't think that's fair."
Chism: Split resolutions means tax expires
The tax's current 10-year term expires in June 2018 unless the Mississippi Legislature renews it during its upcoming session that begins in January. It raised almost $2 million in Fiscal Year 2017, 85 percent of which went to CVB and the rest to the LINK.
District 37 Representative Gary Chism (R-Columbus), who sits on the House Local and Private Legislation Committee that oversees renewing such taxes, said Friday he does not intend to support one resolution over the other. Without a joint resolution of the city and county, he doesn't believe his committee will take up the matter at all.
"If their resolutions are not the same, neither will be presented," Chism said Friday. "They're both dead. ... The Legislature in the past has not wanted to settle local disputes through competing resolutions. It appears now to be up to the city (to save the tax)."
Friday's supervisors' vote came after a series of failed negotiation attempts to craft a joint resolution -- including a contentious joint session Dec. 7 at Trotter Convention Center -- and sets the stage for the city council's response when it meets Tuesday evening.
At one point, supervisors seemed agreeable to both the city and county receiving a portion of the tax for their recreation departments. But on Friday Brigham, parroting previous statements from Board President Harry Sanders, said either entity should lobby the CVB board for those funds for special projects -- such as the amphitheater or the city's planned $1.6 million renovation project at Propst Park -- instead of receiving them directly from the tax.
CVB's board has already offered the city $250,000 per year to complete the amphitheater if the tax is renewed, but the council rejected it.
Plus, supervisors on Friday resolved to give up to $300,000 for each of the next three years to municipal recreation departments in the county, including a proposed $200,000 to Columbus, $50,000 to Caledonia and $50,000 to the Field of Dreams project for the physically disabled at Propst Park. Those funds, Sanders said, represented county taxes collected from citizens living in those municipalities. The Legislature must also approve that resolution.
CVB board makeup
Brigham, who pushed forward the amendments to the county's restaurant resolution Friday, also supported leaving the appointment process for CVB board members as-is.
Now, the city and county each appoint four members to CVB's board, while Sanders and Columbus Mayor Robert Smith jointly appoint the ninth. The joint appointment, both supervisors and city councilmen have acknowledged, has at times taken up to a year and left CVB a board member short.
On Dec. 7 at the Trotter, Brooks proposed rotating the ninth appointment between the city council and county supervisors, allowing each entity to enjoy a majority for a certain timeframe.
While Brigham said the idea was worth considering, he ultimately couldn't support "change for the sake of change."
"Why change something that's worked well?" he said. "It's important the CVB board continue to operate without partiality."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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