Councilwoman responds to accusations from Gulfport mayor: ‘I pray for them’
GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Gulfport Councilwoman Ella Holmes-Hines spoke with WLOX News Now in response to allegations made by Mayor Billy Hewes, accusing her and a state senator of “conspiring to kill” Gulfport’s proposed food and beverage tax.
“First of all, I thank WLOX for notifying me that the mayor had issued a press release with my name in it and that he did not send it to me first,” she said. “That’s very important to me.”
Hewes sent a statement to local media outlets Friday accusing the councilwoman of using “fearmongering and speculation to kill multiple projects.” This came just one day after House Bill 1745 died in the Mississippi Senate, which would have authorized the City of Gulfport to levy an additional tax on food and beverage sales to help fund the promotion of tourism and parks and recreation in the city.
“But, for me, how Billy decides to empower me, that I can take over the city and the state and the House and the Senate, it’s not possible,” Holmes-Hines said. “There were restaurants that said no. There were hotels, motels that said no, and these are associations. I assure you we could have done a better job in notifying everyone to say how this is going to happen. If it’s just going to be about soccer or natatorium or recreation , I’m concerned about getting the aquarium open. That’s going to be a very important event, and then to bite off another recreational, that’s very concerning that a city budget can’t handle that type of stress. Should it be that food and beverage and hotels and motels pay that? Not entirely.”
The City of Gulfport asked the legislature for permission to ask residents to vote on an additional tax to be applied to restaurants and hotels to help fund another sports complex, which would have been located in Holmes-Hines’ ward. She told WLOX News Now she has concerns on how such a development would impact residents in her ward.
“I want to you to see what my people go through on a regular basis just with 100-year floods, just with storms," she said. "They spend the time that they are afraid of rain coming into their area. The levee that we have that we were fortunate enough to get $1.2 million dollars for is not FEMA-certified. Therefore, they pay exceptional insurance that is very high for seniors, but it is important to understand if we’re going to do anything, lets do it right. Let’s make sure all come to the table. This church I’m in tonight, what they go through. They used to have to sweep water to have service. I have pictures. You need to show what this church has endured, Forest Heights has endured, where they lost cars, where they can’t get to doctors for up to three days, they can’t get to pharmacy, they can’t get their kids to school. No one deserves to go through that without a comprehensive review through the United States (Army) Corps of Engineers that is looking at what Turkey Creek, north Gulfport, Forest Heights needs. That’s $19 million dollars but it’s probably a higher price tag. No one is trying to stop development. We’re trying to give a quality of life that low to moderate minority people deserve, and that’s what I’m going to represent as long as I’m here.”
Sen. Deborah Dawkins told WLOX News Now that she received many letters against the proposed tax and only one in support of a new sports complex. She also said the Restaurant Beverage Association Board did not support the proposed tax as the board felt it singled out the restaurant industry.
“It was would have caused great harm to the restaurant industry,” Holmes-Hines said. “I was part of the 2005 class that we created the restaurants in downtown. Put a lot of time, effort and money in there, and you have to understand as there are some restaurants we are losing to Bay St. Louis, to D’Iberville, to other cities, but it’s important to know that my concern is going to be that if you keep asking for more money from a small restaurant, they’re not going to be able to endure that. Locals eat a lot. One of the things we’ve tried to do since I’ve been here is get the MOST, a municipal option (sales) tax, where we can look at infrastructure, levee, drainage, paving. That is, what impact, what does your city look like when you come through a city? We are doing things now that really concerns me on how we are looking at options that we are going to saddle restaurant beverage industries, on hotels and motels, who have, matter of fact, the highest tax on this Coast. We have a very high tax. Some of them say it’s higher than most in the state, and it could possibly be. What’s important is to bring all entities to the table, and my job is to make sure that Forest Heights, north Gulfport and Turkey Creek get out of the storm water, get out of the flooding, reduce their flood insurance and not create more floods. That’s my job, and I take it very seriously.”
The councilwoman said there are other areas of recreation and infrastructure in Gulfport that need to be taken care of before bringing in another sports complex.
"In the city council, I voted against the tax. There’s definitely a better way. When you look at the economic impact of the sports complex, you have to understand that it is truly a jewel that eventually you got to put it on a track that makes it self-sustaining. If what we have done already, and I have been here since the inception of it, that we make this available, that it can create funding for itself, as we are going to look at the options in how we are going to fund water, sewage, drainage, levee, sidewalk. Those things are what most of my constituents are asking that I get done first. You have the recreation. We’re paying $20 million right now for the property that we bought for the aquarium. Slow it down. I am not one that I want to overtax our citizens, but I think it is important to be wise when we do consider taxation, and that is the infrastructure is old in Gulfport. Our streets need paving, water and sewage. We got to get that done. We don’t have a choice, and this Forest Heights levee, it may be the most crucial part to anything, that citizens should never live three days in conditions where they cannot get out of their homes and they lose vehicles, and it shouldn’t happen in the second-largest city in our state.
“Billy’s comments as the mayor of Gulfport were very personal, but there was another mayor that had very personal comments, and so I understand that. I’ve gone through this several times already, and therefore I look past that. I pray for them. It’s important that I do that, and I hope that they will understand that if you’re going to be a great representative, if you’re going to care about the people who are hurting, we must address the problems first. This church is hurting, Forest Heights is hurting, North Gulfport is hurting. Turkey Creek is hurting, and we must address the problems first. It’s easy when you’re high and dry not to care about those who are in floodwaters, waters that they didn’t commit to. This is storm water runoff from the interstate, from hotels, and it has to stop. Just that simple.”
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