West Point voters approve additional 1 percent excise tax

Voters in West Point recently approved an additional one percent tax on hotels, motels and restaurants.

Combined with the existing one percent excise tax, the two percent total is expected to generate about $400,000 per year in revenue.

Half of that revenue will be used to retire bonds issued for West Point’s sportsplex.

The other half will be used to fund projects related to the West Point Growth Alliance.

What exactly those projects are will remain unclear until a committee formed to make that decision begins its work in early October.

Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, would like for the revenue to fund strictly tourism-related activities.

Cashion said in an interview last week that the current law outlining how excise tax revenue is spent is too broad, allowing the money to be spent on projects unrelated to tourism.

In 2009, the latest year for which the group had figures, local governments collected $53.3 million in local and private taxes, $35.9 million of which was generated by restaurants.

The group has tried the past two legislative sessions to convince lawmakers to narrow the definition of tourism. What would help a lot, Cashion said, is the elimination in local and private bills of the phrase “and for related purposes,” which is what opens the loophole.

“The thing about a lot of these excise taxes is that they’re ostensibly used to fund tourism-oriented projects, and that’s often not the case,” Cashion said. “We’re actively working on that now. We have to redefine the parameters of local and private taxes. It’s not that we’re against tourism taxes. We’re not, if there’s a worthy tourism project that deserves funding. We just want those tourism taxes to be used in the proper way. Closing some of the loopholes in the current law will go a long way toward ensuring that’s the case.”

Cashion said the Association is working now on its agenda for the 2013 legislative session, and the excise tax issue would be on it.

Tourism is one of the options for how the revenue will be spent, said Jackie Edwards, president of West Point’s Alliance. But there are others — beautification, industry recruitment as part of the city’s deal with the old Columbus-Lowndes Development LINK and general expenses.

Marketing and possibly expanding the Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival from one night to two is another possible option, Edwards said, which would seem to fall under the tourism umbrella. Doing the same for the city’s annual Prairie Arts Festival is another possibility, she said.

“We hope this will give us a presence we haven’t had,” she said. “We’re really excited about the possibilities.”

It almost didn’t happen. The recent vote required 60 percent approval to pass. Just shy of 700 votes were cast, according to the certified tally, and the measure passed with the mandated margin by fewer than 10 votes, gaining 60.65 percent approval.

Edwards said once the bonds are retired on the city’s sportsplex, it’s possible the revenue from the original 1 percent excise tax could be used to fund Alliance-related activities, too. The agency is one of the entities that will be on the hook for $350,000 annually to fund the Golden Triangle Regional Development Authority, which officials just announced will come online in October 2014. The agency will be a joint effort of Clay, Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties.

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