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Playing the numbers game

Astatistician I am not. 

But when annual sales tax receipts for the State of Mississippi were released a few weeks back, I couldn’t help but gaze at the numbers, make a few comparisons and even generate a couple of amateur opinions based on what appear reasonably clear assumptions.

 Remember, as you read, the word amateur. Trained, educated officials in state government are paid thousands of dollars to interpret the same figures, make forecasts and offer intelligent insights to the process of budget making and money management.

 Me? I simply find numbers and comparisons fascinating. What started as an admittedly loose tax analysis expanded to include population figures, as well, just to see if there were any trends or answers to questions.  And here are a couple of disclaimers, just so you’ll know that while my work was fun, I did use the most current data I could find from the Mississippi Sales Tax Commission and the Population Division of the U.S. Census Bureau. 

 All that aside, some highlights from the numbers (and a few charts) that compare 306 communities offer some interesting information..

 Sales tax receipts, technically taxes paid to the commission by the retailer, for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009, totaled $383,525,278. That’s $12,073,427 less than the previous year and represents a decrease of 3.05 percent. It’s the first time since 1999 — and maybe ever — there was a deficit from the previous year.

 The commission’s two-year comparison for gross retail sales provides clues to where the problems are most severe, though yielding few surprises.

 While many comparative categories are obviously down, areas like new and used cars, trailers, road and construction equipment, communication equipment, farm equipment, furniture, lumber, hardware and building materials, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, miscellaneous retail, renting and leasing transactions and excavating and grading work are substantially so, creating a broad hole so deep categories showing gains can’t begin to adequately replace.

 Some areas of the economy, statistically anyway, look positive on paper. They include hospitals, computer equipment and repair, grocery stores, restaurants and cafes, department stores, apparel and accessory outlets, TV cable services, electric companies and construction contractors.

 Of some interest – remember again the word amateur – is that larger communities in the state seem to be having a more difficult time than smaller towns and cities.

 Sales tax receipts in Mississippi’s 20 largest municipalities, based on sales tax receipts, are down 3.95 percent compared to the state average with much of the loss hovering on the Katrina-recovering Gulf Coast. Pascagoula registered an 11.65 percent decline in the year-to-year comparison followed by Gulfport (down 7.94), Hattiesburg (6.57), Biloxi (6.53) and Columbus (5.85).

 Though the storm remains a lingering issue, factors like population shifts, industrial growth or decline, new or closing retail opportunities and geographic location all contribute to the vitality of a region’s economy.

 Places like Olive Branch benefit from being close to Memphis.  Tupelo can attract business from Tennessee and Alabama. And while suburbs flourish, the growth of areas like Ridgeland and Flowood hamper Jackson.

 Bigger doesn’t always produce better, either.

 Of the 10 largest sales tax producing cities (Jackson, Hattiesburg, Gulfport, Tupelo, Meridian, Southaven, Ridgeland, Biloxi, Laurel and Flowood), three (Ridgeland, Laurel and Flowood) are not among the 10 most populous cities and one (Flowood) isn’t ranked among the biggest 50.

 Other random points of interest, though the charts, admittedly, make for easier comparisons.

 State sales tax receipts are up $90,183,686, or 30.7 percent, if you compare 2009 numbers with those of 1999. Flowood (216 percent), Olive Branch (175 percent) and Southaven (131 percent), not surprisingly, show the largest increases. For the same period, Jackson is down $4,061,708, or 10.9 percent. That seems significant.

Clinton, No. 10 in population, is not among the top 20 tax producers. Flowood, 52nd in size, is 10th in tax receipts. Over 10 years, Southaven, Laurel and Flowood have entered the top 10 tax receipts list, replacing Columbus, Vicksburg and Greenville.

During a similar period (2000 census to July 2008), Jackson’s population has fallen 10,395 to 173,861, or roughly 6 percent. Overall, the state’s population has grown 3.3 percent since the 2000 census, up to 2,938,618 with North Mississippi communities like Hernando, Horn Lake, Southaven and Olive Branch leading the way.

Latest figures indicate there are 53 communities with population over 7,000. Of that number, 19 are larger than 25,000 people, but only three (Jackson, Hattiesburg and Gulfport) larger than 50,000. Thirty-one reflect growth since 2000.

Southaven, Olive Branch, Oxford, Flowood and Hattiesburg show the greatest gains.

Even taking the 2009 tax slide into account, some financial experts had hinted at tentative signs of an economic recovery, citing the first-ever sales tax holiday, an increase in cigarette taxes and a $10-million tax reduction on farm equipment as key factors.

But July’s dismal start to a new fiscal year has probably erased that optimism.

That means the numbers game will continue and the commission’s monthly comparison will only grow in importance as a reliable indicator.


Contact MBJ editor and publisher Ed Darling at ed.darling@msbusiness.com or by calling (601) 364-1021.


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