April 18, 2013 10:28:13 AM
Nathan Gregory - firstname.lastname@example.org
For the sixth consecutive month, sales tax receipts are down for Columbus. The city's sales tax check for the month of April is $698,385.72 -- a $37,403.25 decrease from April 2012, which totaled $735,788.97. It is the sharpest decrease from a previous year's monthly total since September 2010, when revenues were down $88,125.65 from September 2009. The April 2013 figure represents sales from February.
The monthly average for Fiscal Year 2012-13 through April is $712,268.63 -- down 2.63 percent from this time last year, when the average was $731,538.80.
Two percent motel tax numbers are up nearly $2,000 from the previous April, while two percent restaurant tax numbers for this month are down more than $9,000 from April 2012. Motel tax receipts totaled $19,113.85, eclipsing last April's $17,370.76. Restaurant taxes amounted to $128,846.53 -- down $9,332.95 from April 2012's $138,179.48 collection but up from March 2013's $118,062.58 total.
Two-percent restaurant tax revenues fund the CVB, while the 2 percent hotel tax is used for the Trotter Convention Center.
Before this month's figures were released, Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong and Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle met with representatives from the Mississippi Department of Revenue and requested they investigate factors that may be contributing to the decline.
"I don't think anybody has a real answer," Armstrong said. "We're still trying to determine what it is. That's why we went to the (Mississippi Department of Revenue). Last year we had a good year, and perhaps we were overconfident and projected high numbers again this year. We're all concerned about it."
He said he hopes the success of recent tourism events, including the Spring Pilgrimage, will be reflected in future monthly totals and buck the recent trend of falling collections.
Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitor's Bureau CEO Nancy Carpenter said during a board of trustees meeting Monday that the annual festival was the most successful pilgrimage in a decade. Carpenter said she's encouraged by April's restaurant tax figures because of their increase over March's.
"We were concerned during the winter months ... but $128,000 is a significant increase over the previous month, so we feel good," Carpenter said.
Former CFO Mike Bernsen, who is now Columbus Light and Water comptroller, is also serving as a temporary financial consultant for the city while Rawle gets comfortable with his new position.
Bernsen also pointed to FY 2011-12's success as a reason for the lower numbers.
"I think last year was an anomaly," Bernsen said. "We're returning to normal with the fact that we're losing some retail business. Let's face facts: We've lost some population in this city. You don't need a background in physics to know when you lose population you're going to see numbers like that go down."
Despite the drop in population, resulting in fewer people to pay property taxes, Bernsen said he is encouraged by the amount of tourism the area has seen recently due to the festivals, many of which have been held in conjunction with one another.
"The only reason we would see an increase (in the near future) is if in fact the sheer volume is up (in attendance at the events)," he said. "Whether we hit last year's total numbers, I don't know, but I think we'll get closer (if upcoming figures show improvement). I think it's excellent the way (festival coordinators) planned everything to happen at the same time. Driving around this weekend, I saw more tourists than I've seen in a while, and that's a good indicator. Whether the synchronization is going to mean something permanent, I doubt, but these festivals are probably the most concrete evidence of an effort to improve."
Tax figures also showed a decline in the Golden Triangle's other two cities. Starkville collected $475,22.71 in sales tax returns in Feburary -- a 0.89 percent decline from February 2012's $479,482.34 mark. West Point also saw a loss, collecting $169,383.36. That number was down $10,015.39 from the previous February total.
Like Columbus, West Point's totals have shown consistent decreases recently. Since May 2012, the city has posted four months -- September, December, January and February -- in which collections were down from last year. Decreases greater than $1,000 only occurred in January and February.
The Mississippi Department of Revenue collects 81.5 percent of the 7 percent sales tax from municipalities and distributes the remaining 18.5 percent back to the municipalities over a three-month cycle.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.