On March 12, WDAM of Hattiesburg broke a story revealing that tax money collected for tourism purposes was being misused.
The 2-percent tax is charged on any food, beverage or hotel stay in Hattiesburg, and is handled by the Hattiesburg Convention Commission. The purpose of this organization is to generate tourism for Hattiesburg, but instead the tax money collected was spent on trips to large cities, liquor and jewelry.
Hundreds of dollars were spent on jewelry for gifts to Miss Hospitality, and many commission members had expensive dinners that included lots of alcohol. The tax money paid for all of this.
I’m no expert on city politics, but I think if the commission was organized to make Hattiesburg more tourist-friendly, shouldn’t that tax money stay in Hattiesburg? If I were Miss Hospitality and I were given a trip to New York, complete with fancy dinners and jewelry, that would give me even less of a reason to want to stay in Mississippi.
That might just be me. But how could funds be abused in such a way? Do these people not feel bad that they are spending the money people work hard for on frivolous gifts, some of which have not even been given yet?
Hattiesburg Convention Commission Executive Director Rick Taylor was in charge of organizing all of the trips and did a good bit of spending the money.
Not only does he reap the rewards by staying in nice hotels and getting liquored up on the dime of Hattiesburg residents, but he gets a pretty hefty salary to have fun of his own when he isn’t out of town.
Taylor makes over $200,000 a year. According to WDAM, not only is this higher than the $122,160 that the governor of Mississippi makes annually, but more than the $140,000 the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center Executive Director Bill Holmes makes.
When asked why no one ever noticed this before, Hattiesburg City Council President Kim Bradley said itemized receipts were never received. That means the commission was never shy about how much it was spending, saying it was all necessary, but were never explicit about what exactly they were spending it on.
How was this overlooked for so many years? Maybe it’s the frugal spender in me, but if I saw a dinner receipt for hundreds of dollars and I knew only five people ate, I’m going to wonder what was bought.
Now I’m not so mad at the commission, but the powers that be in Hattiesburg overall. With how long this had been going on, it seems like an audit should have been necessary before now. Someone should have asked for a list of items the money was being spent on to make sure the funds were being put to good use.
How much can a trip to New York really increase the tourism of Hattiesburg?
The worst part of it all is that many people do not even realize this tax is going toward the city. Before reading this article, I always thought the extra 2 percent was an extra food or liquor tax.
So after this news has broken, I’m wary of going out to eat any place in Hattiesburg now that I know where my money is going.
However, this attitude only hurts local businesses, a great draw of the Hub City. Hopefully now that the misdeeds are out in the open, the commission is more open about how they spend their money in order to gain back the trust of the local citizens.
If Taylor and his cohorts don’t learn from his lesson, then I propose an elimination of the 2-percent tax. After all, I don’t want to pay for jewelry that I don’t even get to wear.