Petal to hold Q&A on proposed sales tax increase

By HASKEL BURNS,

Over the past few months, the Petal Board of Aldermen and Mayor Hal Marx have tossed around the idea of a sales tax increase of up to 3 percent at restaurants as one possible solution to increasing revenue in the Friendly City.

The proposal will head to a round-table session at 8 a.m. Jan. 21 at Magnolia State Bank in Petal, when the mayor, aldermen and restaurant owners will be on hand to put forth inquiries and answer questions on the matter. The public is invited to the discussion – which will be headed up by Valerie Wilson, executive director of the Petal Area Chamber of Commerce – to learn about the proposed increase, including what the funds could be used for and how much the tax would be.

“It’s going to be an important step for Petal, and obviously the ones that are going to be most affected are potentially the restaurant owners,” Wilson said. “So we want to know if they have concerns that people might not come to Petal if we have a higher percentage tax increase, or if will cause some of their current clients to cut back on the amount they spend.

“So we just want to open it up before any major decision is made. We want to hear from them – I want to hear what their feelings are on the subject, and the same thing with anybody else.”

Wilson said a variety of opinions are especially important given the fact that this tax increase would be voluntary, as opposed to a mandatory tax such as property tax.

“If you put an (increase) on property tax, everybody’s affected,” she said. “If it’s a tax on restaurants, then you have the ability to choose whether you want to go spend money in a restaurant or not, if that tax is going to bother you.

“So this is an opportunity for people to speak up and let us hear how they feel, and that will give the aldermen and the mayor more guidance on what they should they be doing.”

If officials do decide to go forward with the increase, the matter would first be brought to the Mississippi Legislature. If the idea is approved by the Legislature, the tax increase would be placed on a future election ballot, which would require 60 percent voter approval to pass.

“I think they’ve already had some conversations with (Rep.) Larry Byrd, just about the process of it,” Wilson said. “So the Legislature would have to approve that we can do this, and then there’s still going to be a vote from the people. It’s still a ways off; however, they’re wanting to move ahead with it while the Legislature is still in session now.”

Wilson said to her understanding, funds raised from the tax would first go toward improving infrastructure in the city.

“And then, a portion of it could go to something else,” she said. “So that’s another subject that we want to hear from the people – about what their thoughts are and where they want this money to go if it is voted in.”

After discussions on the matter in August, Marx – who is against raising taxes – said if the increase does take effect, the funds should only go toward 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.”

Last year, voters in Hattiesburg approved a 1-cent sales tax increase on hotels, motels and restaurants in the city. Half of those funds are being used on 17 Parks and Recreation Department projects throughout the city – including the transformation of the former Hattiesburg American building into a public arts center and a walking trail extension at Duncan Lake – while the other half will go toward renovations at Reed Green Coliseum on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi.