Panel’s report on Fairfax County meals tax offers little guidance

After several contentious meetings that went late into the night, a task force to consider whether Fairfax County should ask voters to approve a tax on restaurant meals completed its findings Monday.

For the most part, the 42-member group, formed last month as a way to find a middle ground on the controversial issue, avoided specific recommendations in a report that it is expected to deliver to the County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Instead, the report goes over the pros and cons of introducing a meals tax.

The report argues against putting the issue before voters in a special election, saying that it would be too expensive and that a high turnout isn’t guaranteed given that there would be no other issues on the ballot.

“The task force recognized that it would probably be more useful to the Board of Supervisors for the task force to deliver the pros and cons of doing this,” said Katherine Hanley (D), a former chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, who helped lead the group.

The pluses

County officials estimate that the meals tax could bring in $88 million in new revenue.

The task force said that extra money could come in handy because of the increasing enrollment in the county’s schools, a factor that drove a grueling budget battle between county and school officials this year.

The group’s report also points out unfunded needs in health services, parks, libraries, the arts and other services and notes that county officials estimate that 28 percent of the money from a meals tax would come from people who don’t live in Fairfax County.

“Diversifying the tax base by relieving the existing reliance on the real estate tax could benefit commercial landowners as well,” the report says.

“Low real estate tax rates encourage businesses to locate or expand in Fairfax County and provide additional jobs.”

The minuses

On the negative side, the report says, many residents already feel overtaxed after seeing their property taxes increase this year by an average of $357.

It adds that a meals tax may unfairly affect lower-income groups.

“Studies have shown that the tax burden is already highest on lower-income brackets who are most likely to be affected by a meals tax,” the report says. “Therefore, the meals tax may shift the tax burden to lower-income residents and senior citizens who often eat out.”

Assuming the supervisors decide to move forward with the idea, the report lays out different scenarios for timing. For instance, while putting the issue before voters this November could mean extra tax dollars faster, it wouldn’t give advocates on either side time to educate voters, the report says.

Putting the issue off for future elections doesn’t guarantee that a meals tax would move forward because the makeup of the Board of Supervisors is likely to change in coming years, and there may be less support for the idea, the report says.

Hanley, who co-wrote the report, said it is merely meant as a jumping-off point for the supervisors to use as they consider the idea, which caused deep political rifts in the county the last time it was taken up, in 1992.

The intensity of the debate leading up to the task force report showed that the same kind of rifts are possible if there were another meals tax referendum.

Underscoring that possibility, the task force report includes in boldface type a caveat for the supervisors:

“Not every member of the task force agrees with every aspect of this report.”

Antonio covers government, politics and other regional issues in Fairfax County. He worked in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago before joining the Post in September of 2013.
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