Rec tax proposal not ready, lawmakers say

Published 11:35 am Thursday, March 1, 2012

Two of Warren County’s legislators say they will not support legislation allowing Vicksburg to increase hotel and food and beverage taxes to fund a sports complex until the Board of Mayor and Aldermen address concerns of members of the city’s hospitality industry.

“I cannot support this bill because the people who will pay the tax do not support the funding plan,” Rep. George Flaggs said today after he and Rep. Alex Monsour met Wednesday night with 10 members of Vicksburg’s Chapter of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association.

“We are not opposed to a sports complex,” said Joyce Clingan, chapter president and the owner of Walnut Hills restaurant, where the group gathered. “We are 100 percent for recreation. It’s how we are going about getting it.”

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The city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen last week passed 2-1 a proposal to ask the Warren County delegation to the Mississippi Legislature to drive to passage a proposal to allow the city to increase the tax on all hotel and motel stays from 2 to 4 percent. In addition, the city seeks to add 1.5 percent to the current 1 percent collected on food and drink. The 1 percent is collected countywide and dedicated to the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The intention of the proposal, Mayor Paul Winfield has said, is to raise up to $20 million for a sports complex for local athletes and to attract state tournaments. He has said he expects the bond to be paid off at a rate of about $1.2 million annually and the tax would cease once the debt is paid, proposed to be 15 years.

Winfield has not said exactly where the park would be, only that he has picked out a site on U.S. 61 North.

Flaggs and Monsour said they would meet with the three members of the City Board during their regularly scheduled meeting at 10 a.m. Monday in the City Hall Annex.

Monsour said the hospitality association and City Board members need to meet.

“They need to come to a meeting of the minds,” he said. “There is still time to prepare and submit another resolution. Nobody at that meeting said they were against a sports park, only the way it would be financed.

“I believe we’ll see another resolution before it’s over,” he said.

The association wants a committee of coaches and recreation officials to select a site and help plan the complex and plans to be in place before seeking funding. The association also wants the board to look at alternative funding.

“You won’t find a soul around who doesn’t want what’s best for Vicksburg,” said Rusty Larsen, owner of Rusty’s Riverfront Grill and the father of two sons, ages 8 and 12, who play baseball.

“The ones who’ll be hurt the most from this tax are the ones who are fighting to get by,” he said, referring to servers, who often rely heavily on tips for income.

Association members are concerned the tax increase might keep local residents, who form the bulk of the restaurants’ business, from dining out. They also fear Vicksburg’s tourist trade could take a blow.

Flaggs said the Board of Mayor and Aldermen needs be up front with the public about its plans.

“There’s too many questions,” he said. “I think everything ought to be on the table. They’re looking to collect $18 million to $20 million. I think there ought to be a definitive number. There ought to be some type of plan. I’m not voting for something that’s not ready.”

If the city proposal is approved at the state Capitol, it would go to city voters in a special election estimated to cost $80,000 to $90,000. Flaggs said he is opposed to a special election, saying the board should piggyback the referendum on the 2013 municipal elections.

“You shouldn’t have to pay $80,000 to $90,000 to vote yes or no,” he said.

Monsour said he and state Sen. Briggs Hopson III, who did not attend Wednesday night, have asked the board for plans showing what it wants to do.

“I’m all for a sports complex,” said Betty Jackson, owner of Cherry Street Cottages and the Shlenker House.

Jackson, a former Warren County supervisor, said the Vicksburg area has professional athletes and coaches who can help with the sports complex.

“These are people who have the experience and the knowledge to know what we need,” she said. “We want to find the best possible site.”

The city in 2003 paid $325,000 for a 200-acre tract on Fisher Ferry Road for a sports complex, but abandoned the project in 2009 after spending an additional $2.7 million for preliminary plans, engineering and dirt work.

Winfield has said the Fisher Ferry site is not suitable for a ballpark, saying part of the property, including the access route, is in a flood zone.

Also, in 2007, the city board hired USA Partners Sports Alliance of Jacksonville, Fla., for $250,000 to determine the feasibility of a proposed $25 million sports complex at Halls Ferry Park, including Bazinsky Field, proposed by the Aquila Group of Vicksburg. It would have included baseball and softball fields and related amenities, a water park, a baseball stadium/ballpark and facilities for golf, soccer, volleyball, tennis and other activities. The Aquila Group would lead the construction and management of the fields and sports facilities.

The project died after a study by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality found the site was not suitable because part of Halls Ferry Park was built on what was once the city’s landfill.

Under an agreement between the city and USA Partners, which was hired after the Aquila Group approached the city, the company would return the $250,000 feasibility study cost to the city if the complex did not materialize. More than four years later, the city has not been reimbursed.