Petal discusses possible one-cent tax increase

By HASKEL BURNS,

Petal officials have recently discussed the idea of implementing a one percent sales tax increase that would be used to fund recreation in the city, but the issue seems to be heading for a disagreement between Mayor Hal Marx and the majority of the Petal Board of Aldermen.

Marx said if the city’s upcoming budget is approved, aldermen plan to bring the issue to the Mississippi Legislature during its next session for permission for a referendum, which would allow residents to vote on the matter. It has not been determined whether the sales tax would be specifically implemented at restaurants or on sales in general.

“They think they have enough money this year to fund it, but really, the way we’re budgeting this year, it’s a one-time thing,” said Marx, who is opposed to the tax increase. “Some of this money that we have this year, we won’t have that next year to use, and we’ll have to make up probably $400,000 or $500,000 in Fiscal Year 2021.

“So there wouldn’t be a tax increase immediately, but there’s no way they can avoid either raising taxes or making cuts again in the next year. So they’re hoping to get a referendum passed, and we’ll wind up paying more in sales tax.”

Marx said he has already informed the board that he would veto the measure, but the veto could be overridden by a majority vote from aldermen.

“I would need at least three aldermen to be on my side, and right now I only have one, or maybe two,” he said. “Unless somebody changes their mind, this is what’s going to happen.

“I want people to know they have a choice – if they’re against higher taxes in the future, and if they’re against putting off trying to find ways to fund our street improvement, then they need to get involved and come to our meetings. They can contact their aldermen and let them now how we feel, because we need to hear both sides, and we need to hear everybody’s opinion.”

Marx said proponents of the sales tax increase believe the measure could raise anywhere from $500,000 to $800,000. But his belief is that if any tax increase is implemented, the money raised from it should go not to recreation, but to measures like city streets.

“We desperately need more money to put into our streets,” Marx said. “They think that most of that (money) would of course go to recreation, with some of it possibly split for other purposes.

“I just think that if you’re going to raise taxes, it needs to go for something that is actually a proper function of government, and that would be infrastructure or public safety. I disagree with it – I think it’s a bad choice, and I think we’re heading down the wrong road with this.”

Ward 3 Alderman Clint Moore said the sales tax increase could provide a steady growth of revenue to the city, which could help provide a long-term solution to some aspects of future budgets.

“It would help by generating revenue directly from the people who choose to come to our city to take part in all the great things we have to offer,” he said. “It doesn’t raise property taxes, which would only be shouldered by the people who live inside the city.

“It would be a more fair tax, meaning that anybody who spends money in the city – regardless if you live in the city or if you live in the surrounding county – will be able to support the revenue that would be used to support the recreation department. Every person in the city would get the opportunity to cast a vote of support or a vote of opposition for this tax increase, so if they felt it was important to support our recreation, they could vote for it. If they felt it was not important, they could vote against it.”

Recently, there has been some contention over a proposed $500,000 budget cut that might affect youth sports and would result in job cuts from the City of Petal Parks and Recreation Department. The concerns stem from a 2017 agreement between the city and the Petal Sports Association, in which the two entities entered into a partnership that created the Petal Athletics Office under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation Department. Previous to that, the Optimist Club of Petal was responsible for baseball in the city, while girl’s softball was operated at the fields in Sunrise.

Marx said during the city’s partnership with PSA, sports grew and combined, particularly with football, basketball and cheerleading. Despite that, the programs did not produce enough revenue for the city to cover the cost to taxpayers, with the city receiving slightly more than $100,000 back on an expense budget of almost $800,000.

Because of that, the budget cuts were proposed, and Petal officials decided they could no longer maintain the ball fields near the Petal Family Branch YMCA within the current budget. Marx said although the PSA hosts games at those parks, for the past couple years the city has shouldered the financial responsibility, which has become no longer feasible.

Petal officials have proposed to PSA that the city will provide the fields, pay the electric bill and pay for the insurance at the sports complex near the Family Y, as well as maintain the outer perimeters of the complex. Because the city doesn’t have the funds to maintain the personnel or supplies to mow and upkeep the fields, however, city officials have asked PSA to take over those duties.

If PSA is able to do so, they will be allowed to continue their current programs. If not, there is another option: members of a local group that maintains the fields at Sunrise have volunteered to provide labor to maintain the fields and host a youth baseball and softball league.

Marx said under the proposed budget, the recreation department would go from 11 employees down to seven.

“We had originally planned to cut from 11 employees down to two,” he said. “We were going to pretty much get out of the whole sports part of it and just keep up the parks, and let the volunteers keep up the ball fields.

“Under this (new) plan, we would still keep up the ball fields and we’d still be spending money to mow that grass and buying supplies for the field. I just want the public to step up, and if they want higher taxes, then we can have higher taxes. I just hope nobody complains when they get their bill. But if they don’t want higher taxes, then they need to speak up.”

Ward 1 Alderman David Clayton said while he would not be in favor of measures such as arbitrary property tax increases, he would not have a problem if residents voted to approve the one-cent sales tax increase.

“It would go toward something that a large segment of our citizenry has been asking for, which to support recreation,” he said. “I’d just rather have their input – I know we can raise taxes, but we haven’t done that in 14 years, other than standard things like the school district levies.

“(If they voted against the increase), then it’d be a moot point. What you’ll find is that most people won’t tell you how they feel until you put something on the ballot. I don’t believe in all this social media, because you’re getting input from people that don’t even live in the voting district.”

A similar one-cent sales tax increase recently went into effect in Hattiesburg, after the measure was overwhelmingly approved during an April vote in which 81 percent of voters were in favor of the increase. The new tax, which went into effect June 1 at restaurants, hotels and motels, will be used to fund 17 Parks and Recreation Department projects around the city, as well as renovations at Reed Green Coliseum.