Tax dispute could end up where it began
The fight over ad valorem tax revenue in Pascagoula and Jackson County could come full circle next legislative session if the Mississippi Supreme Court rules against the Pascagoula School District.
The court heard oral arguments June 13 in a dispute between the school district and the county over the distribution of ad valorem tax revenue collected from the Gulf LNG terminal and an expansion of the Chevron refinery.
The money is split among school districts in Pascagoula, Ocean Springs, Jackson County and Moss Point. Pascagoula schools sued in an attempt to keep all the revenue within its district. The court is expected to issue a ruling before the end of the year.
If the court sides with the county, and the city seeks a legislative remedy, negotiations would have to be more fruitful than they were when the law was first passed in 2007.
Former Sen. Tommy Robertson filed the bill that launched 1,000 legal briefs on a Saturday less than a week before the end of the 2007 session, attaching it to an appropriations bill.
Robertson said in an interview last week that he met with Pascagoula School District superintendent Wayne Rodolfich and a handful of other Pascagoula officials the next day, and then again a day or two later, in an effort to reach a compromise.
“I offered for 50 percent of the new monies generated from the LNG and Chevron expansion be retained by the Pascagoula School District and the remainder be distributed among the Ocean Springs School District, the Jackson County School District and the Moss Point School District. I gave them a deadline of Thursday at 3 p.m., never will forget that. And Mr. Rodolfich and his attorney told me they would not take the deal. They just told me they wanted it all. When they told me that and they rejected my offer, I went to work. This whole mess could have been avoided.”
Robertson’s work resulted in Pascagoula, which receives about $14 million annually from the existing Chevron facility, having to share the new money with the other three school districts, with the amount based on an enrollment-driven formula.
Robertson said the revenue sharing is fair because the LNG terminal and the expanded refinery sit on land that is owned by the county. The land is not in the city limits, he said, but is surrounded by the Pascagoula School District.
Rodolfich told the Mississippi Business Journal last week that what initially alarmed him over Robertson’s bill was its timing, coming less than a week before session’s end and giving stakeholders and other lawmakers precious little time to review it.
Still, he and Robertson met with the goal of reaching a meeting of the minds, but to no avail.
“I made an effort to reach a compromise with Tommy Robertson,” Rodolfich said. “The compromise was for him to remove (the bill) and let cooler heads prevail and let it go through all the steps of the Legislature. None of that was done.”
Rodolfich added that Robertson’s offer to increase Pascagoula’s share of the tax money “just showed how arbitrary this whole thing is.”
Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, who now holds the seat Robertson held in 2007, said he began meeting with leadership from each of the school districts near year’s-end in 2008, just before the start of the 2009 legislative session, with the same goal: to reach a compromise. But the result was also the same, he said: The Pascagoula School District balked at any form of revenue sharing.
“They weren’t really amenable to that,” Watson said. “They wanted no part of a compromise. They put up a stiff-arm.”
Should the court rule in favor of the county and the city seek to change the law in the Legislature, Watson said he would not support any bill that funnels all the money to Pascagoula.
“Sharing this money is the right thing to do,” he said.
Watson said he would be willing to support bumping up Pascagoula’s take, and to try to clarify language in the law that lowers tax payments based on depreciation in the value of equipment at each of the facilities.
Rodolfich was noncommittal when asked if he could live with any sort of revenue-sharing arrangement.
“That would ultimately be the school board’s decision.”
Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, who has filed bills that would repeal the distribution law, did not return messages left on his cell phone last week.