After the Legislature passed a bill in 2009 empowering Jackson to hold a referendum on whether to impose a 1-percent sales tax on certain goods, then-Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. was always reluctant to move forward, fearing that a 10-member oversight commission the legislation called for was a threat to the city's independence.
In fact, Johnson called the provision a slap in the city's face, and considered asking the Legislature to remove the commission. However, calling for the vote and steering it to passage is one of the lasting legacies of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, and for the past year, the tax has generated approximately $12 million in revenue that the city cannot spend without the commission's approval.
Now, Johnson's fears seem to have come to fruition. The idea behind the sales tax is that the proceeds would allow the city to borrow in the near term, guaranteed with revenue on the span of the sales tax, to spend on infrastructure repairs around the city.
Yet, the sales-tax commission has been reluctant to sign off on the plan that Mayor Tony Yarber's administration developed, citing lack of details.
"It probably wouldn't pass (if voted upon right now), because we've got too many questions about it," Pete Perry, the chairman of the Hinds County Republican Committee and appointee of Gov. Phil Bryant to the commission, told WAPT recently.
While it would be easy to question the motives of politico Perry, it should be pointed out that the Jackson City Council, which will also vote on the 1-percent sales tax plan, has raised a lot of the same concerns as the commission.
Ward 6 Councilman Tyrone Hendrix, for example, who holds Yarber's old seat, has persistently criticized what he calls a lack of attention to the infrastructure needs of his south Jackson ward.
In our view, Hendrix's concerns are at least as valid as those commission members like Perry. However, the spirit of the original legislation—to borrow a phrase from Lumumba—was self-determination for Jackson, to give citizens of the capital city the choice to tax themselves. Therefore, the commission owes a certain amount of deference to Jackson's elected representatives, including Mayor Yarber.
At the same time, Yarber has the same responsibility to the city council, which is a co-equal branch of government, whose individual members are personally responsible for the fiscal decisions that come before the body.
Even in a climate of unexpected infrastructure crises, the mayor's office should not only articulate its vision to the council and the public, but also be open to feedback, even from its adversaries.
This give-and-take is necessary not just because the city generally runs better when the people running it get along, but because they owe it to the citizens they represent.
The 10-member sales-tax commission meets Wednesday, May 6, at 2 p.m. in the Warren Hood Building (200 S. President St.).