The city of Bay St. Louis and the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce Greenways Committee on Friday hosted a public forum to help inform voters about the referendum next Tuesday on a two-percent food and beverage tax in the Bay.
"This is a small town with a long memory," committee chair Allison Anderson told those assembled for the discussion Friday. "Let's be kind to each other."
The forum took place Friday morning in the Seal Meeting Room at the Bay St. Louis Branch of the Hancock County Library System. Anderson introduced the panel speaking on the tax, including Bay St. Louis Mayor Mike Favre; former Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran; and Richard Chenowith, owner of Scranton's Restaurant and The Grand Magnolia in Pascagoula.
"We've been discussing this (tax) for close to a year now," Favre said.
The Bay St. Louis City Council voted unanimously in February to approve a resolution to ask the Mississippi Legislature to approve the submission of a Local/Private bill to authorize the tax. The money would be used for tourism, parks and recreation in the city. The Legislature approved the bill in its regular session this year.
The legislation mandates that if the tax is approved by 60 percent of the
qualified electors in Bay St. Louis who vote in the election, the funds generated must be used only for the promotion of tourism, parks and recreation in the city. The mayor and city council will work together to administer the funds and designate projects.
The city estimates the tax would raise about $500,000 for tourism and parks projects each year.
"Probably 50 or 60 percent of it would come in from tourists, anyway," Favre said.
Moran said that when she took office as Ocean Springs' mayor in 2005, "the city had not built a new park in 30 years."
Since Ocean Springs enacted such a tax in 2007, however, it now has new park facilities, a 40-acre sports complex and a state-of-the-art tennis complex that hosts annual tournaments, Moran said.
Initially, she said, "It was a controversial idea. … Restaurant owners thought we were singling out their industry for a tax, but that's the only way the legislature would let it be done," that is, by an industry that would directly benefit from it.
"If I were a restaurant owner in Bay St. Louis right now, knowing what I know now, I would be for this today …," Chenowith said.
He was a member of the Jackson County Restaurant Association when the tax idea first came up in Ocean Springs, he said, and "I used to be against it."
However, he said, the tax ended up helping all of Jackson County.
Soon after the tax was enacted, Chenowith said, "The first time I went to a restaurant, I had a great lunch and at the end, it cost me 25 more cents. That's it. But now when you have the word 'tax,' people get jumped up."
Moran and her administration went out and educated the restaurants and the public about the tax, he said, which helped change his mind about it.
"I have very mixed feelings about it," Pat Robinson, a local realtor who attended Friday's forum, said. "My take on it is, i want to be sure what the money will be used for. First of all, I tend to think that not that many people are going to vote unless they're ticked off."
Chenowith, however, "made a valid point about the word 'tax,'" Robinson said. When people hear the word 'tax,' they're against it. … It's going to be interesting to see how many people vote. I don't like some of what I've heard," but she said she's willing to keep an open mind.
"I'd like to know a little more about it," she said. "I thought the two people on the panel made sense. If all it's going to do is pad your lunch bill by 25 cents or 50 cents, that's no big deal. I think that my reservation is how the money is going to be used, and I think if it does pass, it needs to be used with a great deal of sense, and not just 'I want, I want, I want.'"
The referendum will be on Tuesday, December 17, 2019. Voting
precincts are as follows: Ward One: Bay High School; Ward Two: Bay St. Louis Library; Ward Three: Senior Citizen Center; Ward Four: Christ
Episcopal Church; Ward Five: American Legion Post 139; Ward Six: Bay St. Louis Fire Station No. 2 on Highway 603. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. For absentee voting go to City Hall.
Even if 60 percent of the voters approve the tax on Tuesday, the legislation will automatically repeal after July 1, 2023. The city will have to seek an extension during the 2023 legislative session if the citizens want the tax to continue.