Loudoun board changes position on making new taxes possible

January 23, 2012

After a strong political and public outcry, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to reverse its Jan. 3 decision to seek the authority to impose an array of possible taxes on Loudoun residents, including a meals tax.

Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) proposed the motion to reconsider the board’s decision to request equal taxing authority from the state as part of its legislative agenda, saying that numerous constituents had approached him to express their disapproval.

“I believe that our position that we took a few weeks ago has been misrepresented,” Higgins said. “I’ve heard statements that the board endorses a meals tax for Loudoun County, that we as a board have voted for higher and additional taxes, which is not the case.”

Despite his conviction that the issue is about local control rather than raising taxes, Higgins said, he was swayed by concerns that future boards might not be “as prudent or responsible” when applying the taxing authority.

Vice Chairman Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) also said that she would reverse her initial support of the request after hearing feedback from concerned residents.

She added that the controversy caused by the new board’s very first vote had “definitely resulted in a good discussion.”

The possibility of a meals tax has prompted a heated response from the community before: Residents have condemned and voted down a possible meals tax in referendums three times in the past decade.

But the concerns of fellow politicians and members of the public did not persuade other county leaders who supported Loudoun’s effort to obtain equal taxing authority.

Before the Jan. 3 vote, board Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) said that a sizeable portion of the revenue generated by a meals tax or Transient Occupancy Tax comes from visitors and tourists, rather than Loudoun residents — a point that Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) repeated Tuesday.

“Just because a position has been misrepresented doesn’t mean it was the wrong position,” Letourneau said. Despite the “spin” put on the issue, he said, “the reality is that the item we voted on gets us closer to reducing the tax burden . . . because every dollar we collect in revenue obtained from folks outside Loudoun County is a dollar that we don’t need to collect from folks that live inside of Loudoun County.”

Letourneau also emphasized that the matter was really about the “broader principle” that Loudoun should have the same taxing authority granted to other local towns and cities.

“I challenge any one of my colleagues or anyone in this room to explain the logic that the town of Leesburg can enact all of these taxes, and Loudoun County can’t,” Letourneau said. He promised that addressing that discrepancy would remain a priority throughout his term: “You will see me fundamentally trying to address this inequity consistently.”

York also reiterated his support for the taxing authority and expressed a clear frustration at the oppositional response — particularly a public statement made by Sen. Mark Herring (D-Loudoun), who said Jan. 5 that he would oppose the Loudoun board’s request.

“I’ve been around here now for five terms,” York said. “At the end of the day, board members, I think it’s kind of befuddling that we do not take advantage of people outside of this community when they come in to use our facilities. . . . I can’t understand the reluctance.”

The money raised from a meals or Transient Occupancy Tax could not only reduce the burden on property owners, York said, “we could use that extra money to buy down the debt that we have for schools.”

The four supervisors who voted against the request for authority at the Jan. 3 meeting held firm Tuesday.

“It was brought to referendum three times; it failed three times. The citizens spoke,” said Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), who questioned the argument that taxing visitors and tourists would lessen the pressure on local residents. “In my viewpoint, the government’s appetite expands to whatever the feeding source is. And the more we put into it, the more that appetite expands.”

With Higgins and Clarke voicing a change of heart, the vote to reverse the board’s position passed 6-3, with York, Letourneau and Supervisor Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run) opposed.

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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