Applause erupted from tourism tax supporters Monday night at City Hall as Mayor Justin McKenzie announced 76 percent of voters had approved the referendum.
Just 60 percent was needed, clearing the way for a 3 percent sales tax on restaurants and hotels that is expected to take effect July 1.
The estimated $750,000 per year generated by the tax will go toward building a sportsplex and other parks and tourism improvements, and the mayor called it a “game-changer.”
McKenzie said the city has been losing population since 1976, leading to a lack of new construction and older homes deteriorating after being vacated and having to be torn down.
“That’s lowering the tax rolls. So I believe this gives us an opportunity to invest in our community, to give it that shot of adrenaline. In turn, that’s going to help us turn around the dynamics of the community,” he said.
Turnout was 21 percent with 699 of the city’s 3,308 registered voters casting ballots. Of that, 531 voted for the tax and 168 voted against.
“That’s a comfortable margin. We’re very pleased with that. I wish we could have had better, but for those of you who voted against the tax, the 24 percent who voted against, we hope we win your level of confidence before this five years is up,” McKenzie said.
The last referendum held in Columbia – in May 2016 regarding a $9 million bond issue for improvements to the city schools – passed with 86 percent with 870 total votes cast. However, that was a larger group of potential voters because it included everyone in the Columbia School District, which also includes areas outside the city limits.
There are 15 affidavit ballots pending, but they aren’t enough to affect the outcome. The election commissioners must wait five busines days to give time for the two voters who did not bring voter ID to return before certifying the results.
Once the vote is certified, the Board of Aldermen will approve a resolution adopting the tax. Notice will be sent to the Mississippi Department of Revenue, which takes 30 days to implement the tax. McKenzie said they expect to have it in place on July 1.
The tax is set to automatically be repealed in June 2023 but could be renewed before then by the Legislature. Typically once tourism taxes are approved by voters the Legislature renews them every four years without another referendum if the city board unanimously passes a resolution requesting renewal.
Most surrounding cities have similar taxes. That includes Hattiesburg, where voters on April 23 approved by 81 percent raising its tourism tax from 2 percent to 3 percent. Columbia’s turnout was stronger than Hattiesburg’s at 21 percent versus 12 percent in the Hub City.
Turnout was strongest in Ward 2, which votes at the Columbian-Marion County Library, where it was 38 percent of registered voters. The other three wards varied between 13 percent and 18 percent turnout.
Voting trends were similar in all four wards, ranging from 63 percent in favor at City Hall (Ward 1) to 78 percent in favor at the library.
McKenzie said it makes him and aldermen feel good as city leaders to have that level of confidence from voters that they’ll give the officials an opportunity to take their tax money and spend it wisely. He said the people spoke in “pretty loud” in favor of trying something different.
Now the city will move forward with developing more specific plans for a sportsplex, which has been discussed at city-owned property on RA Johnson Drive. McKenzie said they’ll also move forward with other improvements at parks, such as handicap accessibility issues at Friendship Park.
Supporters believe the sportsplex holds potential to draw people from outside the area to Columbia to dine and shop during tournaments. McKenzie said Alderman Edward Hough attended a ballgame in Brookhaven this week, and it was so full that people were parking along the streets and they had to send teams to Magee to complete the tournament because of rains.
“Some other guys from here in town wound up going to Vicksburg. They bragged on how beautiful the park was. It rained all weekend; with Astroturf they played right through the rain,” McKenzie said. “They said the place was packed out. They sent me pictures of vehicles from Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama and, of course, Mississippi. So that was really promising to see that.”
He ended with a message to not “count the city of Columbia out.”
“We’re not little old bitty Columbia. We need to work to be the city that we once were and that was a leader in this state,” he said. “And we’re going to keep digging to do everything we can do to make it better.”
Pictured Above: Supporters of a tourism tax cheer and capture the moment on their cellphones Monday night at City Hall as Mayor Justin McKenzie announces that the referendum passed. | Photo by Charlie Smith