Sales tax election set for April 23

By HASKEL BURNS,

In less than a month, Hattiesburg voters will decide whether to institute 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.

During a special-called meeting Monday, Hattiesburg City Council members voted 5-0 to set April 23 as the date for a special election, during which 60 percent of voters must vote for the tax increase in order for it to pass. If passed, the additional tax – which is expected to bring approximately $4.2 million in new revenue – will begin to be collected on June 1 be in effect until June 30, 2022.

“For just over one year, we have been talking on this proposal and listening,” Mayor Toby Barker said. “We have held over 40 town hall meetings in every part of our city, where we asked residents what ideas they had to improve quality of life.

“Neighborhood meetings, surveys, emails, social media – a year went into listening to our citizens to bring this proposal forward, because we wanted to get it right.”

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. A full list of projects can be found at www.onefuturehattiesburg.com.

Barker said that share of the money would go to parks and recreation, 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. “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 other half of the revenue collected from the tax would go to the coliseum on the University of Southern Mississippi campus.

“Improving Reed Green is imperative – not only to bring it up to modern standards four sound and accommodation, but also because we’re consistently passed up for entertainment opportunities because we do not have a legitimate venue that can hold more than about 1,000 people,” Barker said. “We envision Reed Green being more than just a facility used for basketball and graduations 50 or 60 nights per year.

“We envision its use being expanded into more of a municipal arena, and I know their administration shares that same vision, because when more people visit our area for (entertainment), everyone benefits economically.”

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. 

“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 proposed tax increase will have a “sunset,” as the legislation that sets up the vote 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.

“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,” Barker said. 

Voters will vote at their city precincts, rather than county precincts, and polls will be open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. on election day. Residents who are unsure where to vote can call Hattiesburg City Hall at (601) 545-4522.

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