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Coronavirus gnaws at city sales tax

Wednesday, May 20, 2020
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The novel coronavirus has taken its first bite out of the city of Ruston’s sales tax receipts, but the worst is yet to come.

That’s the word city Chief Financial Officer Julie Keen brought to the Board of Aldermen on Monday night.

Even though total tax revenue was down about 9% in March, the big hit will come in April, Keen said.

“We’ve still not felt the consequences from the sales tax revenue through COVID,” Keen said.

Most local non-essential retailers were closed the entire month of April because of statewide stay-at-home orders issued in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

April sales tax figures won’t be available until sometime around mid-June.

Businesses began to shut down, and restaurants cut back to takeout and delivery only on March 23; that meant tax revenue was down for only about nine days in March.

Total sales tax income for March was approximately $1.5 million, down about $147,500 from March of 2019, Keen said.

Economic Development District No. 1, the district that consists of hotels and restaurants, generated only $128,000 in hotel and eatery taxes this March. That’s a $50,000 drop from the previous year, Keen said.

It’s the 1.75% of sales that hotel and restaurant tax that’s generating the money for Phase II of the municipal sports complex.

The Cooktown Road Economic Development District — that’s the Ruston Marketplace Shopping Center — generated $307,000 in taxes this March. There is no prior year with which to compare because the shopping center opened in June 2019.

Mayor Ronny Walker issued a plea for residents to support local merchants and restaurants as they begin to reopen.

“Never before do we need to do more in shopping Ruston first than now,” he said.

In other action during Monday’s 20-minute meeting, aldermen approved submitting an application for a fiscal year 2019 Louisiana Community Development Block Grant Clearance Demonstration Program Application even though the city already knows it’s getting the money.

The $250,000 grant will be used to tear down about 50 dilapidated houses, many of which were damaged by the 2019 tornado.

Ruston is one of only four cities to get money for 2019. The other cities receiving funds are Slidell, Ville Platte and Abbeville.

Aldermen also agreed to tighten the section of city code dealing with enforcement procedures.

The changes basically give the city authority to withhold a license or certificate of approval earlier in the process, should someone not be following a specific code, such as erosion control rules.

The changes also give the city authority to enforce emergency orders issued by the mayor, Board of Aldermen or other city official.

Monday’s meeting was the first in-person meeting aldermen had held since coronavirus pandemic hit.

In April, the board met via Facebook live. This month’s meeting would normally have been the first Monday of the month, but Walker wanted to postpone the meeting in hopes that the stay-at-home order in place as May began would be lifted.

The order expired May 15.

Walker and four of the five aldermen wore masks throughout the brief meeting. Only Aldermen Jim Pearce did not, though he did have a mask in his pocket.

The board tables were rearranged to allow for proper social distancing between members.