November 2, 2017 10:10:42 AM
What was supposed to have been a routine measure to extend Lowndes County's 2-percent restaurant tax has become an unseemly turf war between the city of Columbus and the county.
The fight jeopardizes revenues that have funded numerous projects that have benefited us all.
The special tax, implemented by the Legislature 10 years ago, is common in communities throughout the state, with each community designating the revenue for specific needs.
In Lowndes County, the revenue has been earmarked for tourism. It is the sole source of funding for the Columbus-Lowndes Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the Golden Triangle Development LINK receives 15 percent of the revenue -- roughly $200,000 to $250,000 annually.
In October, CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter and LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins appeared before the county supervisors and city council to ask for the resolutions required for an extension of the tax, which is set to expire in July.
While Carpenter and Higgins asked for no major changes to how the revenue would be spent, the city of Columbus is asking for an unspecified amount of funds from the tax, primarily for city parks projects.
That request was met with a heated rejection from Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders, who said he will not support any changes to the resolution. Columbus Mayor Robert Smith remains just as adamant in the city's demand for a portion of those funds.
Both men have made their cases and, in our view, there are flaws in both arguments.
The larger issue, it appears, is the lack of communication, which has led to a lack of planning for which all parties -- the CVB and LINK included -- must bear responsibility.
The kinds of issues that have emerged here in the 11th hour -- resolutions must be included in the bill the county provides when the 2018 legislative session begins just two months from now.
This should have been discussed, debated and resolved months ago.
In the 10 years the restaurant tax has been in place, much has changed. Needs have changed, as new projects have been completed and new needs emerge. Revenue from the tax has increased dramatically, from $1.3 million annually to almost $2 million. It is reasonable and prudent that all involved parties should examine how these funds can be used to best serve the community's interest before presenting a new bill.
Special funds should be designated for specific purposes. There should be no ambiguity. Not a penny or a dime should go into any general fund, to be used at some undetermined date for some unspecified purpose. Without specifics, there is no accountability.
Possible changes to the restaurant tax may be warranted and certainly should be discussed and debated, something that should have happened long before now.
Instead, what we have is a stalemate -- a take-it-or-leave-it impasse that threatens the renewal of the restaurant tax and hurts our community.
Supervisor Leroy Brooks has offered to be a liaison between the city and county, which is a good start.
With two months before the legislative session begins, the clock is ticking though.
We cannot demand that everyone like each other. But we can, and do, demand they work together to promote the best interests of all of our citizens.
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