A penny for our future

By MAYOR TOBY BARKER,

For the past year, our administration has engaged citizens, neighborhoods and other stakeholders about the parks and recreation needs in our community. 

We have held more than 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 and social media were used to listen to our citizens and bring a proposal forward – because we wanted to get it right. 

On the April 23 ballot is a proposed 1 percent increase in the hotel/motel and restaurant tax. That’s 1 cent on every dollar spent. 

While that may not seem like a lot, with all of the visitors that come to our city on a yearly basis, this will generate $2.4 million in new revenue, and that’s a conservative estimate. 

 

1. A couple of questions that citizens may ask, and rightfully so…is why parks and recreation? Why not infrastructure?

The answer to this is simple. The Legislature doesn’t approve local option sales taxes anymore for 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 on parks and recreation capital investment from our general fund to this new revenue source. 

This will free up dollars in our general fund both for deficit reduction as we make progress toward structural balance – and provide more recurring funding for infrastructure projects, particularly for roads and drainage. 

 

2. The most important question that will be asked is: what will this money be used for? 

Half of that money will come to the City of Hattiesburg for parks and recreation improvements, spread over 17 individual projects, all of which you can see at onefuturehattiesburg.com. 

This project list is based on a projected revenue stream of $2.4 million a year ($1.2 of which would come to the city) for the three years the tax is in effect. So in essence, we’ll have just over $3.6 million in projects on the table. 

If the city share goes above $1.2 million in a given year, that extra will be put to expand our network of sidewalks, bike trails and multi-use paths…all of which have been asked for by our citizens. 

The other half of that revenue will go to improve Reed Green Coliseum. Improving Reed Green is imperative - not only to bring it up to modern standards for sound and accommodation, but all because we are consistently passed up for entertainment opportunities because we do not have a legitimate music venue that can hold more than around 1,000 people. 

We envision Reed Green being more than just a facility used for basketball and graduations 50 or 60 nights a year. 

We envision its use being expanded into more of a municipal arena, and I know that administration there shares that same vision; because when more people visit our area for a concert, or a play, or a soccer tournament or any other of the thousands of events that bring people into our city, everyone benefits economically. 

Everyone pays in, particularly with this, and everyone shares in the burden of providing municipal services. 

 

3.Another question might be: where is our current 2% restaurant and hotel/motel taxes going? Wasn’t, for example, the 2% restaurant tax passed to build a convention center and then be done?

Initially, the 2% restaurant tax was designated for construction of a convention center. 

However, over the past 25 years, the City of Hattiesburg has approached the Hattiesburg Convention Commission and asked it to manage amenities like the Saenger Theater, Hattiesburg Zoo and USO. And quite frankly, you cannot argue with the results. 

Our zoo had 100,000 more visitors last year than the Jackson Zoo. It no longer depends on an $800,000 city subsidy to stay open. 

Furthermore, the Saenger Theater nearly broke even last year for the first time in 30 years. 

The USO is now an African American Military History Museum that hosts school groups and visitors from around our region. 

Soon, there will be a Freedom Summer Museum at the Historic Eureka School. Your 2% restaurant tax is invested in things that better our quality of life and bring in visitors to our community, which further strengthens our economy. 

 

4. Why can’t we simply divert proceeds from the existing 2% restaurant tax? 

Furthermore, any change in how the 2% restaurant tax is spent is subject to legislative approval. 

As someone who lived that process for 10 years, it is very likely that the political consequences of opening up that code section of law to the entire Legislature would be its complete elimination. While some may think they want that result, our tourism industry would be decimated. All of the things that the current 2% goes to pay for – Hattiesburg Zoo, Saenger Theater, USO and soon-to-be Freedom Summer museum – depend on the Convention Commission’s ability to manage these destinations. 

If suddenly no money exists for the personnel to manage these facilities, then they revert to the city. 

The city does not have the capacity to suddenly take over these facilities, and quite frankly, city management would not maintain a good product.

 

5. Finally, one other question we have heard is: will this tax have a sunset? The legislation calls for a repeal of June 30, 2022. If passed on the April 23 referendum, it will begin being collected on June 1; so the city will have access to it for just over for three years. 

However, as with any local and private bill that governs a local option special sales tax, if the City Council and Legislature agree, there can be a four-year extension. 

And my hope is that this effort is so successful, transparent and transformative that our citizens will demand its extension for four more years. But given the makeup of the Legislature, that isn’t guaranteed, so base spending projections based on a three-year timeline.

The Election will be held on Tuesday, April 23rd. Hattiesburg voters will vote at their city precincts. If someone needs to vote absentee, they can do so at City Hall or call (601) 545-4550 to request an application and ballot. 

During the past year and a half plus, we have seen some real wins – a 94% school bond renewal, full audit compliance and restoration of our bond rating. 

Those wins come when we join hands and take steps of faith together. And this is that next step. 

No one wants to pay more. We know that. 

But I can think of no other setting where you will be able to see, to touch, to experience, to witness the fruits of making such an investment. 

I believe with this referendum, our people will make a collective choice on what kind of city Hattiesburg, Mississippi be. 

I believe future generations will look back and ask - in moments like these, when we held opportunities to join hands and change the course of history for Hattiesburg, Mississippi – did we do it? Did we seize those opportunities? 

I ask you to join us on April 23 and make the collective decision to take a giant leap forward. I ask you so that when future generations do ask that question, it will be answered with an overwhelming and resounding YES vote.

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