January 7, 2014 9:55:08 AM
As the Legislature begins its 2014 session, city officials around the state will be watching closely the progress on a bill that would allow city residents an opportunity to raise money for infrastructure improvements through a temporary sales tax increase.
As is the case with many good ideas, the change always seems late in Mississippi. To date, 34 states have enacted this type of legislation, so this is not some wild-eyed experiment in city funding.
Mississippi's version of the bill, promoted by the Mississippi Municipal League, is called the Citizens for Economic Development Act. It would allow city officials to call for a vote on imposing a sales tax increase not to exceed 1 percent to fund infrastructure projects. In Columbus, which has the type of problems that are typical to an aging infrastructure, giving city residents a chance to vote on such a tax seems reasonable. Self-imposed taxes are rare, of course, but there are situations when the obvious need is enough to warrant giving the voters that option.
Currently, there are very few methods that cities can use to raise these sorts of funds. Millage increases are usually the only tool available.
You might think that giving city voters an opportunity to decide what they are willing to fund would be an easy case to make.
That hasn't proven to be the case in Mississippi. Last year, a similar bill died in committee.
Why, then, the resistance?
As state representative Gary Chism noted, the real conflict here is one that pits city residents against county residents who shop in the city limits. Obviously, sales taxes apply to everyone who makes a purchase in the city, rather than just city residents. Chism says that sort of increase amounts to a form of taxation without representation since county residents who do not have the opportunity to vote on a sales tax increase would be affected, too.
But that is a narrow way to consider this issue. It's like borrowing your neighbor's car and returning it with an empty gas tank and fast-food wrappers littering the floorboards.
The fact is, county residents routinely avail themselves of many things that city residents pay the full freight for. It does not seem unreasonable that county residents be asked to share in the cost for keeping the city an attractive place for the many businesses that county residents patronize on a regular basis.
It is a myopic view to assume that a city's infrastructure problems are entirely its own. There is a symbiotic relationship between a city and its county neighbors. In a very real sense, we are all in this together. The health and prosperity of one has an impact on the health and prosperity of the other.
If you don't believe that, consider what would happen to the value of your home if your neighbors let their weeds grow up and littered their properties with rusted cars sitting on cinder blocks.
When cities are faced with a deteriorating infrastructure, it affects all who work and shop there.
Providing cities another option to fund these kinds of improvements with the consent of its residents is not a radical idea.
It is in the best interest of all, city-dwellers and county residents alike, for the legislature to pass this bill without further delay.