Precincts ready for Tuesday’s one-cent vote

By HASKEL BURNS,

Voters throughout Hattiesburg still have a few days to decide whether to approve an additional 1 percent sales tax on hotels, motels and restaurants to benefit parks and recreation projects around the city, as well as the improvement of Reed Green Coliseum.

The special election on the matter is set for Tuesday, when 14 polls around the city will be open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Sixty percent of voters must vote in favor of the tax increase in order for it to pass.

If so, the additional tax – which is expected to bring approximately $4.2 million in new revenue – will begin to be collected on June 1 and will be in effect until at least June 30, 2022.

Half of the funds – an expected $1.2 million – would go to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department for 17 projects around the city, including a Miracle League inclusion for children with special needs, drainage improvements to soccer fields at Tatum Park, an amphitheater at Chain Park and a splash pad at Sullivan Park. The other half of the funds will go toward the renovation at the coliseum.

Mayor Toby Barker said Parks and Recreation’s share of the money will go to that department, rather than a venture like infrastructure improvement, because the Mississippi Legislature no longer approves of local option sales taxes going to special purposes other than tourism and parks and recreation.

“However, what this will allow us to do, is shift the approximately $500,000 that we currently spend of parks and recreation capital investment from our general revenue fund to this new revenue source, in addition to funding a lot of new projects,” he said in a previous story. “This will free up dollars in our general fund, both with deficit reduction as we make progress toward structure balance, and provide more recurring funding for infrastructure projects.”

Any city share of revenue collected above $1.2 million each year would be invested into sidewalks, bike trails and multi-use paths. That endeavor would specifically focus on South 40th Avenue, Westover Drive, East 7th Street, Quinn Street, Edwards Street, North 31st Avenue and South 17th Avenue.

The city currently levies a 2 percent tax on hotels, motels and restaurants, which goes to the Hattiesburg Convention Commission to operate venues such as the Hattiesburg Zoo and Saenger Theater. That tax, which was originally instituted approximately 25 years ago to build Lake Terrace Convention Center, was proposed to “sunset” – or expire – after the facility was completed, but is still in effect.

“Just so you know, you’re getting a good return for that 2 percent tax,” Barker said. “Our Hattiesburg Zoo had 100,000 more visitors than the Jackson Zoo had last year – we are the premier zoo in the state now, and that’s where your 2 percent tax is going right now.”

The legislation that sets up the vote for the one percent tax calls for it to be repealed on June 30, 2022. To extend the tax, both the city council and Mississippi Legislature would have to approve a four-year extension.

Barker said he is aware of voters’ concerns about the sunset process.

“My hope is that the effort is so successful, is so transparent, is so transformative, that our citizens will demand its extension for four more years,” he said.