July 11, 2018 10:50:16 AM
The chickens are coming home to roost.
Four months after a bill that would have extended Lowndes County's 2-percent restaurant sales tax died in a Mississippi legislative committee and days after the tax expired on June 30, the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau will devote its annual retreat to formulate a plan that will allow the county's tourism department to continue to operate through the end of the calendar year.
"We really don't know what the future holds," said CVB Board of Trustees President DeWitt Hicks. "We hope to learn that at the meeting. I know (CVB Executive Director) Nancy Carpenter and Tom Buckley (the CVB's accountant) have been working on this for quite a while, but I don't know much about it. We should get an information packet before the meeting so we'll be able to review that before the meeting. But I expect that all of the real decisions will be made at the retreat."
The time and location of the retreat has not been released.
The viability of the CVB has been a major area of concern after the bill to extend the restaurant tax failed in the Legislature. The bulk of the CVB's $2,035,047 budget comes from those tax revenues. Because the tax is administered on a three-month cycle, CVB will receive the last of its tax revenue in August.
According to Carpenter, as of May 30, the CVB has a balance of $682,065, roughly one-third of its budget with less than three months left in the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Prior to the retreat, substantial cuts have already been made, with the CVB reducing its payroll and staffing by a third.
In May, The Dispatch filed a public records request under the Mississippi Public Records Act asking for payroll records. Instead, the CVB provided a one-page document listing the salaries of its employees on May 1 and May 31 and charging The Dispatch $308.30 for the document.
On Tuesday, The Dispatch filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission that says the CVB failed to provide the requested records and charged an inflated price for the information it did provide.
Based on the CVB's document, staffing was reduced from four full-time employees and five part-time employees to two full-time employees and four part-time employees, decreasing the annual payroll from $297,088.64 to $200,525.94. According to the document, the budgeted payroll for the year was $302,496.71.
Of those reductions, the largest cut to the payroll came with the resignation of Thomas Berkery, who was hired as the CVB's first sports manager in June 2017. Berkery resigned May 15 to become the baseball coach at Starkville Academy and his position was left unfilled.
Berkery's salary, listed as $53,499.94, made up more than half of the cuts to the payroll. The other full-time position eliminated, that of Marketing and Social Media Assistant Abby Falkner, had a salary of $37,440. The part-time CVB assistant position of Leigh Yarborough, listed with a salary of $5,622.76, was also eliminated.
In a separate public records request, the Dispatch asked for payroll records from the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation (CCHF). The CCHF's primary function is running the city's annual Pilgrimage. The CVB and CCHF have the same board of trustees and some CVB staff members also work for the CCHF.
In his response to that request, CVB Board attorney Chris Hemphill wrote that because the CCHF is a private, nonprofit entity, its records are not subject to public records requirements. Hemphill did confirm that some members of the CVB staff do work for the CCHF but that employees who work for both the CVB and CCHF "are paid for their work for that entity from funds of that respective entity" and that "there are no CVB employees who are paid with CCHF funds (for CVB work)."
While public records laws do not apply to the CCHF, in its IRS filing for 2016 -- the most recent year available -- CCHF reported $81,776 in "salaries, other compensation and benefits." In 2015, the IRS filing stated that the CCHF spent $89,238 for those expenses.
Other budget considerations
Among the decisions the CVB board is expected to make at the July 30 retreat is the fate of funding of four festivals yet to be held but with budgeted CVB contributions -- Artesia Days ($8,000), Caledonia Days ($8,000), Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival ($10,000) and Tennessee Williams Tribute ($10,000).
Carpenter said the fate of that funding hasn't been determined.
"We haven't made that decision," she said. "Everything is on the table."
CVB will also have to find a way to meet its monthly obligations, including salaries, utilities and debt service of $4,943 per month from a loan to purchase the old Elks Building in December 2015.
Hicks said that while he is confident the board can adjust its budget to stay in operation through the end of the year, he's not sure what will happen after that.
"I guess the big question is what happens with the timetable in getting a new restaurant bill passed when the Legislature goes back into session," Hicks said. "Will there have to be a referendum? I've heard yes and I've heard no. But if there is a referendum, that delays the tax, and then there's a two-month lag from the time the collections start and we receive the funds.
"It's going to be pretty slim pickings and for who really knows how long," he added. "I'd say if we were without tax revenue for six months, that would be optimistic."
Carpenter was similarly non-committal on the future of the CVB heading into 2019.
"The CVB could remain functional, but it would be a challenge," she said.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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