Holloway calls for fair return on taxes

Here is the prepared text of Mayor A.J. Holloway’s remarks to the Gulfport Rotary, Thursday, June 6, 2002, at the Great Southern Club:

Good afternoon. I’m glad that you invited me to speak to you today, and I’m glad that so many of you are here.

They asked me to speak about what we have going on in Biloxi. Today, I’m going to touch on some of the things we have going on, talk about a few common challenges we have with Gulfport, and then I’ll take a few of your questions.

If you read last Sunday’s paper — past the story about your rising water bills in Orange Grove — you saw that we have a lot of city legal work in Biloxi. In fact, on my way through the door here today, five attorneys gave me their cards.

Seriously, you hear a lot of talk about how much money we have over in Biloxi, but frankly, we’re investing a lot of money in our city at the moment. And I’m very proud of the work we have going on.

Right now, we have about $20 million worth of work underway in our city. We’re spending $6.5 million a new five-lane Bayview Avenue that’s going to help move traffic from Point Cadet to I-10. This project will also bring new life to a blighted area and create jobs.

We’re also continuing to acquire property on Caillavet Street to build a new boulevard. I came to the conclusion the other day that we should phase in this project since we have just about all of the property we need south of Division Street and we may to go to court with some of the property owners north of Division Street.

We’re rebuilding several major streets as part of our Popp’s Ferry Road traffic project. That is important because this is a major artery into Biloxi.

We’re also building several new roads near property where our new high school opens later this year.

And in that same neighborhood, we’re in the third phase of what will be a $10 million sports complex, with five softball fields with covered bleachers, tennis courts, soccer fields, walking trails and four Little League ball parks.

I have to tell you it’s a little tougher building roads in Biloxi because we’re on a peninsula. There’s that sandy soil, but one of the biggest obstacles is that most of the peninsula is developed. When you go to widen a road there’s usually something in the way, so you have to try to work around them or acquire property.

It’s been a tough process, but we’re seeing results. I think y’all know about tough processes over here, too.

On this issue of finances and taxes, I have to tell you about a word of caution that we have received from our financial advisers on more than one occasion.

Yes, I am very thankful for the revenue stream that we get from the casinos in Biloxi. We’re in a unique position. Casinos are legal only on the water and we’re on a peninsula. That worked out well for us.

But you can have too much of a good thing, at least according to our financial advisers. Since Day One, my policy has been to use gaming revenue on one-time expenditures, such as facilities and equipment for public safety or parks and recreation, building new roads or improving our water and sewer infrastructure. I try to avoid recurring expenses as much as possible.

But we’ve also taken steps to reduce property taxes in Biloxi, which means that we have come to rely on gaming revenue and sales taxes more and more. Today, casino revenue amounts to 35 percent of our annual revenue and sales taxes are about 15 percent.

That’s about 50 percent of the revenue from gaming and sales taxes. Property taxes, on the other hand, are only 17 percent of the city budget.

We cannot become too reliant on gaming revenue and sales tax revenue to fund day-to-day operations. To do so would jeopardize our credit rating. So that’s a constant struggle that we’re facing each year in Biloxi – reduce property taxes, but we’re being told not to lower them too much.

To be honest, in Biloxi I think we made a mistake last year when we cut taxes by 13 mills to offset county reappraisal.

Now, we’re in a position where we’re not seeing any real growth and we’re doing bond issues to build new roads and new schools.

The prudent thing would have been to do reappraisal on a regular basis – and not wait 12 or 14 years – in a municipal election year — and shock everybody, particularly with the growth we’ve seen. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions.

Speaking of tough decisions, I’ve been following some of the news about the challenges that you face over here in Gulfport.

There’s always has been – and I think there always will be – this friendly rivalry between our two cities. I think it’s good because it points out the good things about both cities – and we do have our good things. Our history. Our small-town charm. Our friendly residents. Our location on the water. Good schools. In other words, all the ingredients of an excellent quality of life.

There are times that we need to work together to our mutual benefit.

Ken Combs is a good friend of mine. I have the utmost respect for him and his ability to lead this city and get things done. Ken and I serve on several boards together, and we are in agreement on a lot of the issues. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

I don’t envy the massive challenges that he and the Gulfport City Council face, but I know that they are up to the task.

By the way, one thing I was glad to see a few years ago was the City Council in Gulfport growing from 5 to 7 members. I was tired of the Biloxi meetings always being the only ones in the news. It’s amazing how adding two more members to a City Council can change the entire dynamics.

I’m sure that Ken will agree with me that seven is enough.

I’d like to mention one important area where Gulfport and Biloxi can work together – particularly in these times when we face cutbacks in federal and state funding. There is power in unity.

I talked about similarities our two cities share a minute ago. Another similarity that we have is that we both have taken on large amounts of land that we were once in the county.

According to the latest census figures, 81 percent of the people in Harrison County live in a city. And according to the County Comptroller, who also happens to be a Biloxi City Councilman, Biloxi and Gulfport make up more than 70 percent of the county’s 2001 assessed value.

In other words, 7 out of every 10 dollars that the county collects in property taxes comes from Biloxi and Gulfport.

That, I think, says a lot.

Here’s another fact: In Biloxi, residents actually pay more in COUNTY taxes than they do in CITY taxes.

I’m not here today to say whether we ARE or ARE NOT getting our fair share from the county.

What I AM saying is that this is something that we need to pay close attention to, particularly in these times when the size of cities in this county is growing and the size of the unincorporated areas is shrinking.

I think that Biloxi and Gulfport both need to work more closely with our county supervisors to ensure that we are getting a fair return on our tax dollars.

I want to say that District 5 Supervisor Connie Rockco is working with us on the Popp’s Ferry Causeway park project, and District 1 Supervisor Bobby Eleuterius has been working on beautifying the medians on Highway 90, and the Board of Supervisors are participating in our $35 million TIF bond for Bayview, Caillavet and Popp’s Ferry.

But we do not want to get in a case where Biloxi and Gulfport are subsidizing operations in smaller cities and in the rural areas of the county – while depriving our own citizens.

Most of our tax dollars should be put to use where they benefit most of our residents – whether they live in the cities or in the unincorporated areas.

Ken Combs is mayor of Gulfport, and A.J. Holloway is mayor of Biloxi. But we are both – in fact we are ALL – citizens and taxpayers of Harrison County.

That’s my message for today, and I thank you again for inviting me.