March 14, 2019 10:41:19 AM
Some local legislators in Jackson still say they are reticent to support a 1-percent restaurant sales tax for Columbus, leaving city officials wondering how to fund maintenance and operations at the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater on The Island.
The tax bill passed through the state Senate Local and Private Committee Wednesday, meaning it will be presented for a vote on the Senate floor soon.
Sen. Chuck Younger (R-Lowndes County) said negative feedback he's received from citizens about the tax makes him unsure whether he plans to support it. Since he represents the area affected, his support level for the tax could hold significant weight as to whether it passes the full Senate.
"I've had a lot of negative calls about it from restaurant owners and members of the public," Younger said.
If the tax passes the Senate, it will move to the House Local and Private Committee, on which Rep. Gary Chism (R-Columbus) sits. While Chism has changed his tune since Tuesday -- when he said the bill would not get out of the House committee but is now saying he will vote to get it to the House floor -- he still opposes the tax.
"I'm going to help it get out of committee ... because the people have to vote on this one," Chism said. "But I'm going to oppose it if it gets out on the floor."
The tax bill, if passed through both legislative houses and signed by the governor, would still require a direct referendum -- a city-wide vote -- that would need 60-percent voter approval for the tax to be enacted.
It would add to a 2-percent restaurant sales tax already enacted this session that became effective March 1 and is collected at businesses in Columbus with annual food and beverage revenue of at least $100,000. Combined with state sales tax (7 percent), Chism thinks an extra 3 percent is prohibitive.
"That's a 10-percent sales tax on your meal," Chism said. "I think that is too much."
The 2-percent tax will fund recreation, tourism and economic development efforts county-wide, with the city planning to put some money aside to finish building the amphitheater. More than $3.2 million in state funds built the amphitheater stage, but it will take another $2.5 million to install seating, gating, concession stands and other amenities, officials estimate.
City officials had hoped to use the 1-percent tax for amphitheater upkeep, as well as hiring a third-party firm to book concerts and other events there.
With the city facing a budget crisis -- manifested in an $881,000 deficit in Fiscal Year 2018 -- coupled with impending cleanup expenses from a Feb. 23 tornado that destroyed $9.3 million in city infrastructure, Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin said he's unsure how the city will move forward with the amphitheater without the 1-percent restaurant sales tax.
"It would have been a big boost for the amphitheater, but I guess this would put us back where we are now," he said. "Maybe, we could open (the partially completed facility) for some events and just put port-a-potties or something out there. Of course, that's not ideal. My view is, though, if we don't do it right, people will have a poor opinion of it. So we will finish this and get it running right eventually."
Charlie Box, councilman for Ward 3, said the city could look at partnering with a private company to maintain the amphitheater if it proves more cost-effective.
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones, who supported the unanimous city council resolution to ask the Legislature for the tax, said he understands why some might oppose it. Still, he believes the voting public should have the final say on whether to tax themselves.
"Personally, I think the amphitheater should be self-sufficient, with money for upkeep added to each event ticket," Jones said. "But I really don't think it should be the Legislature's decision. I think it should be the people's decision (in a referendum)."
Mayor Robert Smith did not respond to requests for comment by press time. Gene Taylor, councilman for Ward 1, where the amphitheater sits, said he wanted more information before he commented on the record.
The Dispatch could not reach the bill's sponsor, Rep. Kabir Karriem (D-Columbus), for comment.
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