Legislature kills Winfield sports complex

Published 11:30 am Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mayor Paul Winfield’s plan to finance a sports complex with a ½ percent sales tax increase has died in the House Local and Private Committee.

A letter sent Monday from House Local and Private Committee chairman Rep. Joseph L. Warren, D-Mount Olive, to Rep. George Flaggs of Vicksburg said he will not introduce the tax bill in committee, killing it in the House.

The letter cited the City of Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s 2-1 vote on the resolution seeking the tax, and the reluctance of the House and Senate Local and Private committees to approve sales tax increases as reasons for the decision.

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State Sen. Briggs Hopson III said Warren’s decision “for all intents and purposes kills the bill for this session.”

“It’s not a rule, but usually, if the committee chairman in one house won’t bring it up, the committee chairman on the other side won’t,” he said.

Hopson said earlier that Senate Local and Private Committee chairman Sen. Perry Lee, R-Mendenhall, had said he would not support a bill that does not have unanimous support from the local government.

The City Board on April 16 voted 2-1 to send a resolution to the Legislature seeking authority to levy the sales tax increase to fund up to $20 million for the sports complex, if 60 percent of voters approved the measure in a referendum.

Mayor Paul Winfield said this morning he had heard about the letter and was disappointed that the bill will not be introduced.

“I would like to thank Rep. (Alex) Monsour and Sen. Hopson and (North Ward) Alderman Michael Mayfield for their support,” he said.

“To me, it’s a sad day in Vicksburg that our youth are going to continue to play on a landfill because of the lackluster leadership of some of our local leaders, and we know who they are.”

The mayor said he will bring the sports complex up at another time “when the opportunity presents itself. People should not be discouraged.”

Monsour said he had not seen the letter. “But if the chairman’s not going to bring it out, there’s nothing more we can do. We won’t be able to bring it up again this session.”

“I have to let the letter speak for itself,” Flaggs said this morning. “I have nothing further to say.”

Citing the City Board’s vote, Warren wrote that local and private committee chairmen traditionally have required unanimous support from the local governments for local and private bills.

He also discussed the Legislature’s opposition to sales tax increases.

“I also share a concern with the chairman of the Senate Local and Private Committee regarding the wisdom of authorizing any overall sales tax increases at this time,” Warren told Flaggs in the letter.

“We have already turned down numerous requests by cities and counties to allow general sales tax increases, and it would not be fair to them to authorize yours,” the letter reads.

South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman, who voted against the tax, said this morning he does not oppose a sports complex.

“I believe we need to try and develop a program for a sports complex, but not in such an abrupt manner. That is, we tried to do it too fast,” he said.

“I think that’s one reason the committee decided not to hear the bill. They didn’t have enough information. This type of program needs to be developed slowly,” Beauman said.

“We need to continue working on a sports complex, and, as I’ve said for the past 10 to 14 years, it needs to be a countywide project supported by a countywide millage. That’s the way it should be funded.”

Mayfield said Warren’s decision didn’t surprise him.

“After what the members of our delegation told us about the Legislature’s feelings about taxes, we knew this might happen,” he said. “We’ll have to suck it up and go back to the drawing board and see where it leads.”

When he introduced the sales tax resolution, Winfield provided a package on the sports complex that included a master plan based on plans for the Fisher Ferry complex, an analysis of the tax increase, description of the complex advisory committee and letters of support from the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Directors, Outlets of Vicksburg and the Vicksburg Chapter of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association. The package was sent to the Legislature.

The VCVB Board in March supported the sports complex but opposed the sales tax. The Hospitality and Restaurant Association said it would support the sales tax if the city’s hotels and restaurants were exempt.

The 200-acre Fisher Ferry Road site was bought in 2003 for $325,000. It was abandoned in 2009 after the city had spent an additional $2.7 million for preliminary plans, engineering and dirt work.

Winfield has said the Fisher Ferry Road site was not suitable because part of the property, including the access route, was in a flood zone.

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.