Officials pack hearing on municipal option sales tax

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Bassfield Mayor Buford Blount says his city has five years of payments left on a 25-year-old water system that springs leaks daily.

&uot;It’s gone to pot,&uot; Blount said Wednesday at the Capitol.

He said he’s convinced that MOST &045;&045; the proposed Mississippi Optional Sales Tax &045;&045; would give his tiny southwest Mississippi town a way to raise money quickly to pay off the old debt and improve the water system.

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He was among several city officials from across the state who tried to convince lawmakers to support a bill authorizing MOST.

The bill would let cities or counties set elections on whether to levy a 3/4 of a cent sales tax for specific capital-improvement projects such as paving streets paving or improving water lines.

The local tax also could be used to pay off existing debt. Sixty percent of voters would have to approve the tax.

Natchez Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith and Adams County Supervisor Sammy Cauthen were among those who converged on the committee meeting Wednesday.

Smith has said he favors letting the people vote on whether they want to enact such taxes for specific projects.

During Tuesday’s aldermen, Smith had mentioned that a public swimming pool was one need that could possibly be funded by such a tax.

Such a measure, he said, would allow a project to be paid off in a matter months, versus the years it would take to pay off a bond issue.

A tax of 3/4 of one cent would raise about $3.6 million for Natchez, according to Smith’s figures.

But what are the bill’s chances during this legislative session?

&uot;I think (the chances) are as good now as they’re ever been … particularly with the Association of Supervisors showing their support,&uot; Smith said.

But many lawmakers campaigned last year on promises not to raise taxes.

Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre, president of the Mississippi Municipal League, said lawmakers should not worry about being blamed for raising taxes because people would have a right to vote.

&uot;I promise you this _ we’re not asking y’all to take the burden on this,&uot; Favre told lawmakers. &uot;All we’re asking is let our people make the decision, take the vote.&uot;

Reps. Frances Fredericks, D-Gulfport, and Jim Simpson, R-Pass Christian, said they were concerned about cities using the local option tax to pay off existing debt. Simpson asked if there was any guarantee that local officials would repeal property taxes that are now used to pay the debt.

Favre said there is no such guarantee.

Municipal officials have been pushing for years for a local option sales tax, and in the past couple of years they have gotten county supervisors involved in lobbying efforts.

House Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said a Ways and Means subcommittee would study the MOST bill this session.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, elected last year on a pledge not to raise state taxes, has told Municipal League officials that he will not actively support MOST but he will not veto the bill if it passes the full House and Senate.

The bill is House Bill 856.