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February 7, 2018 10:53:01 AM
The Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau board on Tuesday did its part to save a 2-percent county wide restaurant sales tax.
Now, it must wait for the city council, county board of supervisors and Mississippi Legislature to do theirs.
In a two-minute special-call meeting, CVB board members approved by a 5-4 margin an inter-local agreement on how to distribute future revenue from the tax, which raised almost $2 million in Fiscal Year 2017. All four of the city's appointees to the board favored the agreement, while the four county appointees opposed. Thomas "Tango" Moore, the city and county's joint appointment on the board, tipped the scales for the deal, though he offered no comment as to the reason for his vote.
Under the terms of the agreement, CVB will distribute up to $400,000 annually to the city -- including $300,000 for baseball field improvements at Propst Park, $50,000 toward the completion of the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater on The Island and another $50,000 distributed evenly ($12,500 each) among four designated festivals in the city. It also will allow CVB the forum to offer input on improvements at Propst Park and amphitheater completion for the city to take under advisement.
"We'll make this work," CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter told The Dispatch, although she acknowledged the bureau would have to cut its budget to do it. "I'm thrilled the vote has been taken and the board has spoken. We have always been professional, and we will continue to operate with professionalism and integrity."
Though the city council met an hour later, it did not take up the inter-local agreement Tuesday.
Mayor Robert Smith said he would provide council members copies of the agreement today and call a special meeting later this week for them to vote.
"The council hasn't seen the agreement yet," he said. "I want to give them the opportunity to review it."
City Attorney Jeff Turnage provided CVB board members a copy to review on Friday.
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin told The Dispatch after Tuesday's council meeting he supports the agreement -- or at least the terms he understands it includes -- and he didn't foresee any problems with it clearing the council.
"I wish we could have done this sooner," Gavin said. "I'm ready for this to be over. Hopefully, we can all move forward now and get back on track."
The Legislature must renew the tax during this session or it will expire on June 30. Lawmakers have indicated a joint resolution between the city council and board of supervisors is necessary for renewal, but now each body has approved a resolution with different terms.
Once the council OKs the inter-local agreement with CVB -- which would secure funds for the city from the tax -- its members have indicated it would agree to the county's terms for a joint resolution with the county.
That joint resolution also will include a fixed $250,000 annually from the tax for the Golden Triangle LINK for economic development, compared to the 15 percent it has received for the past 10 years.
An embattled process
Tuesday marked the third time the CVB has met to consider a restaurant tax agreement with the city -- the first two marred by last-minute changes the city added to the terms that board members didn't have the chance to review beforehand.
First, the city added funding for the four festivals: Market Street, Seventh Avenue Heritage, Juneteenth and Southside/Townsend.
CVB balked, then made a play to have the city deed the bureau a portion of the old Gilmer Inn lot downtown and asked for marketing/promotion rights at the amphitheater. The city outright rejected those requests and the two sides agreed in principle that the four festivals -- three of which have direct ties to public officials -- would only receive funds after completing the CVB's application and documentation processes for special event grants.
When CVB met a second time last week, confusion ensued on when, and at what rate, CVB would distribute the tax funds -- an issue both sides also apparently worked out.
But the festivals remained a sticking point with some CVB board members, all of whom are county appointed.
Mark Castleberry, who along with Brock Reynolds offered his no vote by phone Tuesday, previously said he couldn't support the deal because of the political ties to Juneteenth (co-organized by Supervisor Leroy Brooks), Seventh Avenue Heritage (organized by State Rep. Kabir Karriem) and Southside Townsend (organized by Councilman Gene Taylor and Supervisor Jeff Smith).
Rissa Lawrence said last week she didn't think any event should be specifically singled out to get funding -- the CVB also funds festivals outside the city limits each year on a case-by-case application basis. Steve Wallace last week took issue with Market Street receiving funds because it is a "standalone event" that makes money every year. When approached by The Dispatch Tuesday, however, Wallace refused to further explain his opposing vote to the agreement.
"The board chairman speaks for the board," he said flatly. "I do not."
Chairman Dewitt Hicks, who voted for the agreement, said he is "very thankful" to see it pass. He added he hopes the negotiation process had not permanently changed the character of the relationship between the CVB and city.
"I think the city will benefit from this agreement for years to come," Hicks said. "It's not easy to reach a resolution like this, but I don't think there will be lasting harm to the relationship because everyone was trying to do what they thought was best."
Where Restaurant tax negotiations stand
The city and CVB have agreed in principal that CVB will distribute to the city annually:
■ $300,000 for Propst Park baseball field improvements; and
■ $50,000 toward completing the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater completion.
■ a $60,0000 annual appropriation to be split among four festivals -- Market Street, Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival, Juneteenth and Southside/Townsend -- with CVB providing $50,000 each year and the city providing $10,000;
The city and county have agreed:
■ to remove the $325,000 floor on the restaurant tax and require all prepared food and beverage sales be taxed;
■ keep the CVB board makeup the same -- with four members each appointed by the Columbus City council or Lowndes County Board of Supervisors and the ninth member appointed jointly by the mayor and supervisors board president;
■ to remove restaurant, hotel/motel and historic home from CVB board membership and make all members at-large; and
■ to appropriate $250,000 to the Golden Triangle Development LINK each year from the tax.
The CVB has approved the inter-local agreement, but the city council has yet to vote on it. Once the CVB and city come to terms on an inter-local agreement, the city has agreed to sign on with the county for a joint resolution to renew the tax, which the Mississippi Legislature must approve.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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