Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders, right, offers his views on a proposed compromise on a 2-percent restaurant sales tax as CVB Board Chair Dewitt Hicks listens during Monday's CVB Board meeting. Sanders warned that any new proposal would have to be approved by the county's board of supervisors and the city council before being sent to the legislature for passage. Photo by: Slim Smith/Dispatch Staff
April 24, 2018 10:30:28 AM
Monday, in its first meeting since the 2-percent county wide restaurant sales tax that funds the Columbus Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau died in the Legislature, the CVB board elicited a compromise from local legislators the board hopes will revive the tax and ensure the future of the bureau and the projects it supports.
After hearing testimonials from a restaurateur, a hotelier and a volunteer who works closely with the Columbus Air Force Base -- each extolling the importance of the tax and the CVB -- Board Chair Dewitt Hicks harvested commitments from Rep. Jeff Smith and Sen. Chuck Younger to support a version of the tax that would include a $100,000 floor, which would require all restaurants/businesses with gross annual sales about that threshold to collect the tax from customers. In previous years, the tax has been collected only from businesses that make at least $325,000 from those sales.
That effort was not without disagreements, however.
Hicks and Rep. Kabir Karriem argued heatedly after Karriem said he felt black legislators in the area had been left out of the discussions during the months-long debate over the future of the tax. Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders also warned against proceeding with new plan without the approval of the board of supervisors and the Columbus City Council.
Younger, Smith agree on compromise plan
During this year's legislative session, Younger had refused to support the 2-percent bill in conference committee after the previous $325,000 floor was added back to the bill. A resolution passed last year by both the supervisors and city council had removed the floor.
Smith, however, insisted adding the floor back to the bill, claiming not doing so would constitute a "new tax" he felt voters would need to approve.
On Monday, Hicks asked Younger if he would support a version of the bill that would place a $100,000 floor on gross sales.
"If everything else is the same in the resolution except for the $100,000, if that's the only change, I would agree to that," Younger said. "Let's get it ironed out today and stick with it. Let's don't put in an amendment when we get to Jackson or do anything else to it."
Smith also agreed to support the plan.
The tax, which raised $2 million in Fiscal Year 2017 and is used to almost entirely fund CVB's tourism recruitment operations, among other things, is set to expire June 30.
Barring a special legislative session before then in which the restaurant tax would be part of the agenda, the first opportunity for legislators to make good on Monday's pledge would be January.
Hicks, Karriem collide
Before posing the question to Karriem on whether he would support a reduced floor, Hicks noted that he had failed to notify Karriem of Monday's meeting until earlier that day, calling it an unintentional slight.
"With all due respect, initially I was not invited to this meeting and I think that needs to be said," Karriem said when Hicks asked if he would support the new plan. "As a matter of fact, none of the black local delegation was invited to this meeting. I felt it was a slap in the face, knowing that you want all of our votes. Everybody understands the importance of the 2-percent sales tax, but we also have to start respecting one another and what we bring to the table. I originally wasn't going to come today because I really felt slighted all through the process. Now that we've gotten into a crisis situation, you are putting me on the spot to make a vote which I'm not going to do today."
Hicks interrupted, clearly angry.
"You find one person in this town that would accuse me of being racist," Hicks said. "I'm sick of this racist business in this town. I think a lot of people are tired of it. Now, I profusely apologized to you. It was a slight I caused. You took it personally. This ought to be buried."
"You asked me a question and I wanted to put it in context," Karriem replied. "I wanted to let the public know that originally I was not invited...."
"It was by my slight, my mistake," Hicks said.
The debate continued, during which Karriem said "everybody knows the 2-percent sales tax needs to happen," but said he would follow the city council's lead, refusing to commit before the CVB board.
Karriem also accused Hicks of interrupting him, before the representative abruptly left the meeting.
"I hope the media will pick up every word you've said," Hicks said.
"I do, too," Karriem said.
Hicks then turned the to meeting attendees as Karriem left the room.
"I thought we were going to end on a happy note," Hicks said. "I'd like to ask this group to give these two who have committed to this (Smith and Younger) a standing ovation."
Sanders: Supervisors and council cannot be overlooked
Sanders then approached the board and asked to speak.
"My problem with this is there seems to be a deal cut between the representatives and the senators and nobody has asked the board of supervisors how they feel," Sanders said. "I haven't seen a vote of the city council to see if they support this or not, either."
Sanders warned legislators against changing resolutions passed by local governments without those governments' approval, pointing out resolution had changed multiple times without the permission of either the board of supervisors or the city council.
"Be real careful about what you do," Sanders said. "The board of supervisors might decide they want the zero floor."
Hicks said the CVB's efforts to reach a compromise was not an attempt to circumvent the role of the supervisors or city council.
"The hope and desire of the CVB board is to reach a resolution," Hicks said. "You have to start somewhere. That's what this meeting all about."
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith said, under the circumstances, he, too, supported the compromise.
"I'm speaking only for myself," Smith said. "But if we send something to Jackson that we know won't be approved, it would be foolish, So what we need to do, in my opinion, is to find something we can agree on and move forward."
Sanders said he was still unsure why a change in the floor would be considered a solution.
Turning to Jeff Smith, Sanders said: "When we took the floor out, y'all said you couldn't vote for it because it was a tax increase. But going from $325,000 to $100,000, isn't that a tax increase, too, Jeff?"
"We're not here to fuss," Smith responded. "We're here to move forward. I'm not going to sit here if you're criticizing the past. The past is behind us."
"The past is what got us in this situation right now," Sanders said.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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