During these tough economic times, it is not only hard on families to make ends meet, but it also difficult for cities and towns to meet all the needs of their citizens.
Even in good times, there never seems to be enough money to do what we need to do. Streets need to be built and re-built, new fire stations, libraries, police stations, parks and civic centers and city halls are all examples of needs cities and towns have, but usually don’t have the funds to build this infrastructure or facilities.
State laws allow borrowing through bonds and a few other methods, but these methods have a limit on the amount of funds and it is never enough. The downside of this is the interest we have to pay. Cities and towns pay million of dollars a year in interest, while many of the projects such as streets, are worn out before the debt payments are paid off. It is a never-ending circle of borrowing money and paying too much interest and never having enough funds to do what needs to be done, in a timely manner.
Another problem that cities and towns have is the need to keep property taxes low. If those who make major decisions for our communities are not careful, property taxes can become such a burden that no one can afford to live in our communities.
One might ask what the solution is, and I have an answer. I believe the Legislature needs to give strong consideration to the Mississippi Optional Sales Tax (MOST) as many of our sister states have done. One only has to look at Oklahoma City, Okla., to see how perfectly the optional sales tax works. Why not give our citizens the right to vote for a temporary sales tax of up to one cent that would allow them to build a project or projects and pay for them in a short period of time, thus satisfying the needs of the citizens and saving millions of dollars of interest? The tax would be removed once the project is complete, therefore keeping the cost of living low for our citizens and businesses.
As a member of the Mississippi Municipal League, who has been a proponent of MOST for many years, I support such a bill. MOST has been introduced in the Legislature for several years, but it has died without allowing the entire Legislature to vote on it. All we ask is that our citizens be allowed to chart their own destiny. Simply allow them to choose a project or projects and vote, with a 60 percent super majority being required to pass. Build the project(s) in a short period of time, paying as we go, and then remove the up to one-cent sales tax when the project is paid. If a city or town has a new project, it would require a vote again by its citizens.
This is a win/win for all. I believe that if our legislators would be progressive and pass this as law that it would also create jobs and help our state economy.
In a time when the State of Mississippi is struggling to balance its budget, MOST would produce more money for our state hopper. It appears to me that even the most conservative legislator could do the math and see that over the long haul, this would save many millions of dollars in interest, create thousands of jobs, satisfy the needs of local communities and keep taxes low.
Some progress with MOST has been made in Mississippi. The state Legislature recently passed a bill that allows the City of Jackson to vote on a local option sales tax for certain types of projects. Unfortunately, this bill is not broad enough and it should be improved upon when the statewide optional sales tax is passed.
The state Legislature has the means to provide a special fund for our Capital City that would help keep the streets and other infrastructure in good condition. Since about 40 percent of all properties in Jackson are tax-exempt, it is impossible for the city to provide the necessary maintenance and upkeep with such a great number of properties not paying taxes. A special fund that assists Jackson in this way would be in the best interest of all the citizens of Mississippi.
As we look forward to the 2010 legislative session, let’s encourage our legislators to be forward thinking and pass MOST. This could be one of the most important legislative matters for cities and towns that has ever been voted on by the state Legislature.
Gene McGee, mayor of Ridgeland, contributed this Op-Ed column for the Mississippi Business Journal. For a public official or newsmaker to contribute an Op-Ed column, contact MBJ managing editor Ross Reily at email@example.com.