January 17, 2018 11:09:19 AM
Columbus city councilmen are making a last-ditch effort to negotiate with the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau to renew a countywide restaurant tax set to expire in June.
The council on Tuesday approved a resolution reducing the amount the city is seeking for recreation from the tax and renewing efforts to strike a joint resolution with Lowndes County so the Mississippi Legislature can extend the tax during this session. It also effectively rescinds the council's December vote to pursue a citywide tax and allow the county version to expire.
The city's new resolution seeks to renew the sales tax and distribute all the proceeds to the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau. From there, the CVB would distribute $350,000 annually to the city ($300,000 to renovate baseball fields at Propst Park and $50,000 to complete the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater on The Island), as well as $250,000 each year to the Golden Triangle Development LINK for economic development efforts. CVB would keep the remainder to promote tourism.
The city had previously requested the tax provide roughly $500,000 annually to the city, including $400,000 for Propst Park and $100,000 for the amphitheater.
Meanwhile, the county supervisors, by a 3-2 margin, have resolved to distribute the money only to the CVB and LINK with no other designation on how the CVB distributes it.
City officials hope their new resolution will help spark an inter-local agreement with CVB to share the tax proceeds.
Once such an agreement is reached, Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin said the city would likely rescind its resolution and sign on with the county's version.
"We feel very good about this, and I think we're very close," Gavin said. "We've been in discussions with the CVB, and I want to compliment their ability and willingness to work with us. ... I hope we can get this done and over with soon for all the citizens of Lowndes County."
The restaurant tax collects an extra 2 percent on prepared food and beverage sales at businesses where annual revenue for those items is at least $325,000. However, resolutions passed by both the city council and Lowndes County supervisors seek to apply the renewed tax to all prepared food and beverage businesses regardless of revenue.
The Mississippi Legislature, which is in session, must approve all "local and private taxes," which includes this restaurant sales tax. Without a joint resolution -- for which county and city officials have very publicly not been able to agree to terms -- the tax will likely expire.
In Fiscal Year 2017, the tax generated about $2 million, of which 85 percent went to the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau for tourism promotion and the rest to the Golden Triangle Development LINK for its economic development efforts.
If the tax is not renewed in some form, it will eliminate the CVB's primary funding source.
CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter confirmed she had spoken with Mayor Robert Smith and several city councilmen in crafting a compromise, and she plans to present a possible inter-local agreement to the CVB board at its 4 p.m. meeting on Monday.
"We have taken this very seriously and made significant cuts to our 2019 budget to make this work," Carpenter said. "It has not been easy."
The city's new resolution also puts to rest a disagreement between the city and county on how the CVB board should be appointed. It will stay a nine-member board with four members each appointed by the council or supervisors and the ninth member jointly appointed by the mayor and supervisors board president.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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