Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau board members gather for a meeting Monday. They tossed aside a last minute request from the city on an inter-local agreement to renew the restaurant tax and instead voted to craft a new agreement with some new provisions of their own. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
January 23, 2018 10:51:56 AM
Last-minute requests from both the city and the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau board have again placed the future of a county-wide 2-percent restaurant sales tax in peril.
CVB board members met Monday to consider an inter-local agreement that would have put to rest arguments over how the tax money would be distributed in the future. But between a last-minute city addition to the deal and measures CVB board members added to their own draft of an agreement, negotiations have again broken down.
The restaurant tax collects an extra 2-percent on prepared food and beverage sales at businesses whose gross revenue from those sales is at least $325,000 -- though if it is renewed, both the city council and Lowndes County Board of Supervisors have agreed to require all food vendors to collect it. The current 10-year term for the tax expires on June 30, and it requires the Mississippi Legislature's approval to renew. The tax raised nearly $2 million in Fiscal Year 2017.
The deadline is March 9 for bills to be introduced to the House Local and Private Committee, which handles such taxes.
Legislators have previously said it would take a joint resolution of the county and city to renew the tax. Once this inter-local agreement was in place, the city had planned to rescind its resolution and sign on with the county's -- which would distribute the money to CVB with the stipulation that it give $250,000 annually to the Golden Triangle Development LINK.
Last week, city councilmen resolved to renew the county-wide tax if the CVB would enter an inter-local agreement to provide Columbus $350,000 annually from its revenue -- $300,000 for baseball field improvements at Propst Park and $50,000 toward the completion of the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater on The Island.
However, the draft of the inter-local agreement the city sent to CVB on Monday included a request for the CVB to fund four city festivals: Market Street, Juneteenth, Seventh Street Heritage Festival and Southside/Townsend Community Festival. The funding -- $12,500 annually -- would replace the $10,000 the CVB currently provides to each festival through grants.
While the CVB board accepted distributing $350,000 to the city from the restaurant tax, members rejected the additional funds for the festivals. They also voted, in approving its own inter-local agreement draft, to ask the city to deed the organization 13,300 square feet (which makes up roughly one-third) of the lot downtown that once housed the Gilmer Inn and for the rights to market and advertise the amphitheater to recruit acts.
Mayor Robert Smith, speaking to The Dispatch this morning, called CVB's demands "unbalanced," "unfair," "irresponsible" and "punitive to the citizens of Columbus."
"I thought we had a deal," Smith said. "I'm very disappointed."
Smith said the city intends to hire a professional firm to market the amphitheater once work is complete. Further, he said deeding a portion of the Gilmer lot -- which the city bought and tore down the dilapidated inn as a means to recruit more viable commercial development -- to the CVB would make it more difficult to market the remaining property.
"Also, CVB hasn't invested a dime in either one of those projects," Smith said.
CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter said her board was similarly surprised by the last-minute request for festival funding, as she didn't receive anything in writing from the city including that request until Monday afternoon just before CVB's board met.
Speaking to the CVB wanting a portion of the Gilmer property, she said it would allow for outdoor classroom/activity space that would complement the Children's Museum planned for the old Elks Lodge building on an adjacent property.
"We have made a good faith effort to make this work," Carpenter said.
Smith disagrees, adding he doesn't understand why CVB would now jeopardize a tax that funds more than 90 percent of the organization's annual budget.
"The buck stops with the CVB now," he said. "The ball is in their court. ... Evidently, the CVB doesn't care."
Two councilmen, Ward 5's Stephen Jones and Ward 6's Bill Gavin, told The Dispatch this morning they had not seen the city's inter-local agreement draft before it went before the CVB Monday.
Jones said he wasn't aware additional festival money would be a part of it. Beyond that, he did not comment on the merits of either that request or CVB's added provisions.
Gavin said he knew the festival provision would be added and did not say this morning on the record whether he supported the CVB's new requests.
"It's a two-way street in any kind of negotiation," he said. "I thought we were very, very close to a deal, but apparently, we were not."
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