West Point joins sales tax push

Staff Writer

West Point joins a growing list of cities asking the state Legislature to call a special session and rebate a share of online sales tax revenues back to the cities using the same 18.5 percent formula used for taxes collected by brick-and-mortar retailers.

The Board of Selectmen approved a resolution Tuesday night supporting that effort. The resolution is circulating among members of the Mississippi Municipal League.

"It's the easiest and simplest way for the Legislature to handle it,"said Columbus city attorney Jeff Turnage, who drafted the resolution as president of the state's Municipal Attorneys Association. "The state is collecting about $300 million in the so-called use tax and with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, it expects to collect an additional $50 million this year and $75 million next year.

"It's only fair that the cities get their share since they are the ones suffering the revenue losses to the growing amount of online retail sales but still have to foot the bill for increased costs related to deliveries in their communities, thefts, and other expenses," Turnage said recently.

The Legislature has struggled with how to divide the use tax revenues, opting for now to keep all the money.

But as cities and counties continue to struggle to keep up with road, bridge, drainage and other infrastructure demands, local governments have pressured the state to share some of the revenues.

A Supreme Court ruling earlier this summer clearing the way for sales tax collections on all Internet retail sales only amplified the call for revenue sharing.

State Revenue Commissioner Herb Frierson has said it would be too much of a burden to require online retailers to pinpoint the location of every delivery and collect sales taxes accordingly. Instead, some state lawmakers have suggested returning money to the cities based on population. Others have suggested divvying the money up based on the previous year's brick-and-mortar collections or a city's share of total state sales tax revenues.

"Before we say it's too cumbersome, the cities think we should at least look at it and try it. There is a Multistate Sales and Use Tax agreement that already has more than 20 states in it that shares all this information in a computer program nationwide. Mississippi is not a member. Maybe we should work in that and see what is possible before we just throw in the towel," Turnage said previously.

"If we won't do that, then we'd rather see it based on a percentage that considers what a city has been collecting rather than population, especially for towns like West Point that attract shoppers from a wide area," Turnage said.

Rumors of a special legislative session to settle the infrastructure funding questions, sales tax split and other issues have swirled for weeks but Gov. Phil Bryant hasn't called one because House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves can't reach an agreement.

"The longer we wait, the worse off everyone is. These are issues that are critical to the future of the state. It's disconcerting that going into another budget year for cities on Oct. 1 that there's no solution in sight," he concluded.
In other business Tuesday night, Selectmen:

-- Awarded BankFirst the lowest bid to finance the leasing of two police cars for three years. The local bank offered an interest rate of 3.23 percent and will cover fees and closing costs. The deal was lower than that offered by Bancorpsouth, Cadence, and Hancock-Whitney. Overall, the city will pay $52,621 in 12 quarterly payments which is less than $3,000 in interest on the $49,950 cost of the two fully-equipped Dodge Chargers bought on state contract.

-- Named Berk Smith to fill Bill Gibson's unexpired term on the Emergency Management Advisory Board; reappointed Jackie Edwards to the Golden Triangle Development Link Board; reappointed Selectwoman Leta Turner to the Golden Triangle Development Link Advisory Board;

-- Approved the five-inch thick West Point-Clay County Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan presented by EMA Director Torrey Williams. The detailed plan covers local-agency response to almost every imaginable scenario from natural weather disasters to chemical spills and terrorist attacks. Selectmen also asked Williams to research details on various search and rescue tools, ranging from drones and helicopters and update them on the resources and partnerships available through regional groups. Williams said the EMA is putting together different groups o responders to practice response scenarios.