Harrison County

Gulfport mayor blasts opponents of new restaurant tax after bill dies in Senate

A bill to hike the sales tax at Gulfport restaurants died Friday before the state Senate adjourned its session.

Sen. Deborah Dawkins, whose district includes a significant portion of Gulfport, fought the bill, saying a new soccer complex the tax would pay for could exacerbate flooding in North Gulfport and Long Beach. Gulfport Councilwoman Ella Holmes-Hines opposed the tax for the same reasons.

Mayor Billy Hewes issued a statement Friday afternoon saying Dawkins and Holmes-Hines “conspired to kill” the bill and didn’t give voters a chance to weigh in.

“Councilwoman Holmes-Hines has long been opposed to developments in her Ward, using fear-mongering and speculation to kill multiple projects — including those that would curtail flooding,” he said. “She is the principal reason there has been little progress made in that segment of the City in the last two decades. If not for the leadership of Supervisor Kent Jones and Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, there would be few, if any improvements, there.”

“Contrary to reports, there are a number of sites under consideration outside of the one identified. Sen. Dawkins knew this, but chose to kill new recreational options for children and seniors in our community.”

Bills for local governments generally do not pass in the Legislature without unanimous consent from the local governing body and legislators who represent the area.

“A lot of people have talked to me,” Dawkins told the Sun Herald. “Nobody has told me anything that convinces me it’s a good idea to raise taxes on restaurants for a project that is not even defined to my liking.”

The House-passed bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard Bennett of Gulfport, would have allowed Gulfport to hold a special election to let voters decide whether the tax should be levied.

A 3 percent tax would have brought the total restaurant sales tax to 10 percent in Gulfport.

Mayor Billy Hewes and a majority of the City Council see the sales tax as a way to bolster sports tourism. They say it would allow the city to fund the soccer complex and improve the existing regional Sportsplex for baseball and football. No site has been selected for the soccer complex, but one plan is to put it near the Sportsplex off U.S. 49 in the vicinity of Interstate 10.

Much of the area includes wetlands, which means an environmental study would have to be completed ahead of construction, Dawkins said.

“A restaurant tax is not a good way to fund the city getting an environmental assessment on a piece of property, whether it’s free or not,” the Democrat said. She said Republican Sen. Tommy Gollott, who is on the local and private committee, backed her in opposing the tax.

The Mississippi Coast Restaurant & Beverage Association’s board of directors opposed the tax and let legislators know in a March 25 statement.

“My board of directors feels that such a tax should be shared by all the businesses in the city of Gulfport and not be placed solely on the restaurant industry,” said Susan Perkins, the association’s executive director.

Other localities or entities that levy a 3 percent sales tax on food — which is in addition to the state sales-tax of 7 percent — are Batesville, Sardis, Tunica County and catering sales at the Jackson Convention Center, according to the state revenue department.

Ocean Springs and Pascagoula have 2 percent taxes on restaurants. And the Legislature just approved a special vote in Bay St. Louis on a 2 percent restaurant sales tax, but it had unanimous local support.

A complete list of local sales tax levies for tourism and economic development can be found at www.dor.ms.gov.

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