Coast residents to vote on tax hike to fund recreation projects

PASCAGOULA — Gov. Phil Bryant has signed legislation allowing Pascagoula residents to vote on a proposed 2 percent prepared food tax, says city recreation commission chairman Mike McElhaney.

The tax would fund recreation projects outlined in the city’s recreation master plan, which the board adopted in October.

Senate Bill 2921 was signed into law April 16, McElhaney said, and the recreation commission wants to see a vote scheduled sooner than later.

“We’re this close,” he told the council this week. “Let’s pick a time (to vote). All we want to do is keep momentum going.”

Earlier this year, councilmen passed a resolution requesting local and private legislation from the state to allow the vote.

A 60 percent majority is needed for the tax to pass, and it would affect all prepared food — from fast food, to sit-down restaurants, to grocery and convenience store delis.

The proposed tax has been discussed for several years.

A similar resolution was submitted last year, but legislators did not consider it. Having the master plan in place helped it get pushed through this session.

The law says the tax would expire after July 1, 2017, if it is not renewed.

Based on current prepared food sales, the tax would raise nearly $800,000 annually, officials have said.

McElhaney said the project with the highest priority is a sportsplex that would be “as nice as they’ll have anywhere.”

With 14 fields of varying sizes, recreation commissioners think it would be perfect for hosting tournaments and bringing in revenue.

For example, Biloxi estimates its sports complex has a $15 million economic impact, McElhaney said, and Ocean Springs’ complex boasts a $10 million impact.

“That’s why these people build these plexes, because they make money,” McElhaney said.

The sports complex is expected to cost $7.3 million.

Mayor Robbie Maxwell told McElhaney that scheduling the vote will “be first in our thinking.”

City attorney Eddie Williams said the city will first need pre-clearance through the Department of Justice for a vote.

“We might want to go ahead and get the ball rolling,” he told the board.

Local restaurant owners have chimed in to say they support the much needed recreation projects, but they don’t agree with putting that burden on the back of one industry.

Many suggested a 1 percent across-the-board tax to fund recreation, which they said is fairer.

Some councilmen have said the timing is wrong for an additional tax, while others said demand is high for expanded recreation and patrons will hardly notice a 2 percent increase.

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