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New councilman Whitwell talks arena, local option sales tax and city budget

Quentin Whitwell won Tuesday’s special election to represent Jackson’s Ward 1 on the City Council, after former councilman Jeff Weill was elected last fall to the Hinds County Circuit Court bench.

Magnolia Marketplace had a phone conversation with Whitwell Wednesday morning, just before he headed to City Hall to polish up some paperwork in advance of his swearing-in on Thursday.

We talked about the downtown arena and the local option sales tax legislation Jackson leaders are attempting to push through the Legislature. Here’s what he told us:

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. essentially took over the arena project late last year from the private entities that had been pursuing it for a couple years.

The city’s action was not met with much enthusiasm from the private sector. Johnson responded to that by saying that the private sector would have to be involved if a downtown arena were to become a reality.

Whitwell acknowledged that there is an inherent mistrust between Johnson and Jackson’s business community that was developed over Johnson’s first two terms.

“That’s something we have to get over,” Whitwell said. “I definitely believe this is an opportunity for the business community and the city to actually get things done. Whether we agree with the mayor every time or not, he is the mayor. I think it’s a positive, not a negative.”

The bill that would allow Jackson voters to decide via referendum if they would accept a 1 percent sales tax whose revenue would fund water and street infrastructure repair and maintenance has cleared the Senate and sits in the House Ways and Means Committee. As the bill reads now, hotels and restaurants, to go with retail food sales and cable and satellite TV service providers’ income, would be exempt from the additional tax.

“My fiscal conservative nature tells me that we are looking at a $300 million budget that is bloated,” Whitwell said. “There are a lot of things that can be cut. I’m not one of those people looking for more dollars in general.

“Having said that, I have been a vocal supporter of the optional sales tax for seven or eight years, going back to working with (Ridgeland) Mayor Gene McGee when he was president of the Mississippi Municipal League.

“I believe that the optional sales tax is a good measure because, No. 1, it’s ‘optional,’ and No. 2, the local government knows best what projects will make it successful,” Whitwell continued. “If Jackson is successful at passing this bill, I think it could be very good and it could free up additional monies (should 60 percent of voters approve it). But I’m going to be a watchdog over the taxpayer money. We already have a pretty high tax system and I think we need to be finding areas to be lowering taxes to start drawing people back into the city.”

When we asked Whitwell for specific things he thinks could or should be trimmed from the city’s budget, he mentioned the overhead associated with administrative departments and their staff, whose hiring process he called “the friends and family plan. I think that needs to be examined and cut significantly.”

““In 1990, our budget was $100 million,” he said. “It was projected then that our budget 20 years later would be $200 million. Since then, we’ve lost enough citizens to fill the city of Vicksburg, about 35,000 people. Yet our budget has increased an additional 50 percent of what was projected. What that tells me is that we’re spending more money than we really should spend.”

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