Mayors: Fix roads and bridges with online sales tax dollars

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Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

This 2016 photo shows a bridge over the Coldwater River in Tate County that was closed by MDOT due to its high degree of decay.

With the possibility of a special session looming, some Mississippi mayors support using a specific type of sales tax to fund repairs to the state’s ailing roads and bridges.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 1992 ruling that prevented states from collecting use tax from online retailers with no physical presence in the state. Gov. Phil Bryant hinted in May he might call a special session to address the matter if this ruling was overturned.

Leaders of Mississippi’s municipalities say those funds are much needed.

Mississippi Today recently spoke with several mayors during the Mississippi Municipal League’s annual conference in Biloxi.

City of Lucedale

Darwin Nelson, center, mayor of Lucedale, pictured with residents

Many expressed frustration with the Legislature’s failure to come out of the last two sessions with a plan to fix  roads and bridges, and said they would welcome any extra funds allotted to them if the Legislature diverted additional use tax funds.

During the 2017 session, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn sparred over a bond bill that would have provided some funding for infrastructure, but neither could come to an agreement on specifics and it died. This year, the House passed several roads bills early in the session which did not make it out of the Senate. Reeves unveiled his own solution in February, a 300-page infrastructure funding plan dubbed the BRIDGE Act. That plan failed as well as the House and Senate continued to bicker over details.

At the end of the session, Gunn cast blame on the Senate for failing to pass House legislation. Reeves countered: “The House typically wants to borrow significantly more than I am willing to put taxpayers on the hook for. That’s not what I was elected to do.”

Lucedale Mayor Darwin Nelson told Mississippi Today he has one bridge in town and it’s in good shape, but the city could certainly use extra funds for water and sewer repairs. He said he would “absolutely” support using the use tax and suggested Reeves has let municipalities down in recent times.

“I’m a staunch Republican and he is too, but he hasn’t been a friend to any municipality in the last few years,” Nelson said.

In Mississippi, a 7 percent sales tax is collected on most retail items, whether they are a traditional brick and mortar or from an online retailer. However, retailers are required by law to collect tax on in-store purchases and submit it to the state. In return, the state reimburses 18.5 percent to the municipality where the transaction was made, along with property tax collections.

Larrison Campbell/Mississippi Today

Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons

“If the governor calls a special session, MML and I know the cities and towns and villages will be going full force as a united force to be looking for the 35 percent of the state’s use tax or $108 million to be divided between cities and counties for infrastructure repairs,” said Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons, who also serves on the municipal league’s executive committee.

Cities and town have asked the Legislature for a comprehensive plan and they have failed to successfully produce one, Simmons said, which is “putting the burden on the least of us.”

“We have to increase ad valorem taxes just to make ends meet or to do infrastructure repairs, when the state can do what they need to do to to make sure they don’t tax the least of us or our people,” he said. 

Several mayors said aging water line and sewage systems, repairs to which come with hefty price tags, also contribute to poor roads.

“Today most of the stuff that’s falling apart that was put in place years and years ago, the cost is 100 times what it cost to repair today compared to what it was then,” said Burnsville Mayor David Nixon. “Just a mile of paving could cost you up into a million dollars.”

Rossie Creel, mayor of Poplarville.

Poplarville Mayor Rossie Creel said his town has a prioritized list of which roads need the most attention, although “most all of them are just not in good shape for various reasons.”

“I’m not a supporter of any added taxes,” Creel said. “However, if it’s something that’s going to happen and my municipality can benefit from it then absolutely we’ll support it and we’ll gladly accept those increased sales tax revenues. ”

In Magee, Mayor Dale Berry said the city just spent $250,000 on asphalt for repaving, but that only covered four or five roads. He said he would support using those use tax funds for road and bridge repair because just like the state’s other towns and cities, Magee needs more money to address its infrastructure issues.

“We only have two bridges we’re responsible for, but we’re like everybody else,” Berry said. “We need it bad.”