Meals Tax Fails; Two Bond Issues Pass

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Voters in Loudoun County rejected a proposed tax on restaurant and takeout meals yesterday, the third time in 16 years that such a measure has failed.

In Fairfax County, voters approved $77 million in parks bonds, which, among other things, will fund artificial-turf ballfields, the restoration of wetlands and a small observatory for gazing at the stars.

Loudoun voters passed bond measures totaling $112.6 million for construction of a high school, an elementary school and a fire station. Those results did not include absentee ballots.

Despite turmoil on Wall Street and in credit markets, sagging property values and steep budget shortfalls in many jurisdictions, backers of the bonds said officials should have the power to make long-term plans for funding popular programs.

"Just like you get a mortgage for your house that spreads the cost, we sort of do the same thing with our bonds," said Judy Pedersen, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Park Authority, which had $65 million in bonds on the ballot.

"The economic woes and the situation we're going through right now -- it's today. . . . Capital improvements are really about the parks of tomorrow. If you don't buy the land today, it might not be available in two years or five years," Pedersen said. An additional $12 million would go to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

Opponents had argued that substantial borrowing generates hefty interest that wastes money.

The Loudoun meals tax proposal covered prepared food, from rotisserie chicken to filet mignon.

In 1992, a bid for a meals tax in Loudoun failed by more than 4 to 1. In 1998, it lost 3 to 1. This year's ballot question specified that revenue from the tax would be used only for school construction, but the thumping still was more than 2 to 1.

"Hopefully, they will give up on it for quite a while," said Patricia Phillips, a longtime tax foe who helped organize the opposition campaign. "It's the wrong time to add costs to consumers as well as to target a very specific segment of our small businesses."

Restaurateur Scott Wills, owner of the Dock at Lansdowne, said adding to the dinner tabs of customers would have hurt his bottom line, and those of his waiters and waitresses. With such a tax, "you're just going to go out less often," he said. "If the economy were stronger, quite honestly I could see it going through."

"People just don't have any appetite right now for another tax," said Nicholas Graham, co-founder of the Loudoun Coalition Against the Food Tax.

In Arlington County, board member Barbara A. Favola defeated a challenge from John G. Reeder, who built his campaign around the theme of affordable housing.

Arlington voters approved $170.2 million in bonds, including $99.4 million for schools and millions more for Metro, sewage treatment and neighborhood improvements such as sidewalks.

Some Arlington voters said yesterday that the spending would be worth it.

"I'm for improving the community, even if it takes higher local taxes to pay for that in the future," said Dan Haling, 45, a software developer who voted at the Madison Community Center in North Arlington. "And especially the schools. I can't think of anything more important to spend money on than the schools."

Arlington resident Stephanie Kingree, 36, an event specialist, said she voted yes on all the ballot measures but one: a proposal to create a housing authority, which failed. "I just don't think it was necessary" in tough economic times, she said.

Opponents said that creating a housing authority would add little to existing efforts to dampen soaring rents for some lower-income residents. Those efforts are now managed directly by county officials.

In Manassas Park, where foreclosures have hit the local budget hard, three independent members of the City Council ran in contested races. Democratic challenger Peter J. Farrell succeeded in his bid, while incumbent W.J. "Bill" Treuting Jr. was bumped from the council.

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