Members of the football boosters club at Arlington's Yorktown High School say they had to sell a lot of hot dogs and candy bars to raise money for a $600 tackling dummy and $1,200 movie projector they gave the school.
Cam Sweeney, vice president of the club, said its members are proud of the $2,000 to $3,000 they have raised each fall from the sales at their concession stand.
But now, Sweeney and other boosters club members at Arlington schools are facing what they describe as a classic case of bureaucracy run amok: The county government is going to tax concessions money that the club raises for school sports and other activities, such as bands, drill teams and the debate club.
No other jurisdiction in the metropolitan area has a similar tax on boosters club sales and, although the tax on most clubs will be only $25 a year, the clubs are furious.
"They said that since we're selling hot dogs, we're running a business," Sweeney said, fuming at the efforts of Arlington Commissioner of Revenue Geraldine Whiting to tax the clubs. "I said: 'Surely, you're not serious about this?' "
Whiting said that she does not like it, but has no choice.
"It's one of those unpleasant parts of the office," she said. "If we could exempt them, we would. But it's the state law and we can't turn off the law for some and on for others."
"I simply think this is ludicrous . . . ," said Sweeney. "It's incredibly galling . . . . Everybody agrees it's insane."
"This is like a slap in the face. I think it's ridiculous," agreed Daffney McGraw, president of Washington-Lee High School's club, which raises almost $10,000 a year for various school activities.
Officers of boosters clubs at Yorktown and Wakefield high schools said that they do not intend to pay the tax. No decision has been made at Washington-Lee, Arlington's other high school.
"It's not the $25. It's the principle of the thing," said Gigi Thorpe, president of Wakefield's boosters club, which raises about $9,000 annually. "We're trying to save the taxpayers money by supplementing extracurricular activities through voluntary . . . means."
"This is carrying a county licensing program to an absurd conclusion," said County Board Chairman John G. Milliken. He said that he hopes to find a way to exempt the clubs from the tax before the Dec. 31 payment deadline.
The county has the right to take the clubs to civil court if they do not pay the tax, but Milliken said that he would oppose any lawsuit over the issue.
"I'll pay their license fees personally, if I have to, to get them beyond this year, and then work on some solution for next year," Milliken said. "It would be like cutting our noses off if we do something to diminish the support for these programs because of some bureaucratic foul-up."
Were it not for the clubs, their officials point out, the county would have to pay the thousands of dollars the clubs raise each year for uniforms, equipment, trophies and other expenses. They estimate that about 60 percent of their revenue comes from concession sales at sports events.
"We're going to lose this type of volunteer activity if the boosters get harassed," said Ed Wilson, Wakefield's athletic director. "We'd die if we lost our support . . . . We'd have to go to a very austere program."
"These people ought to be getting thank-you's instead of bills," said Jim Allen, the athletic director at Yorktown, which has separate boosters clubs for most sports and extracurricular activities.
Yorktown's clubs would have to pay $25 each, a county official said, unless they merge into one schoolwide club as the other high shool boosters have done.
But in the case of Yorktown, which draws from the county's most affluent neighborhoods, the combined gross of the various clubs would exceed $10,000 and make them liable for higher taxes.
The clubs were not billed for the tax until this year, when the commissioner of revenue's office said it discovered that students no longer run the clubs. Student-run clubs in Virginia are exempt, and the parents took over four or five years ago, some said, because the students literally were eating the profits from the concession sales.
"This is not a pick-on-the-schools project," said Whiting, the revenue commissioner, explaining that other worthwhile and nonprofit charitable groups feel the same sting of the law. When the law was written, she said, no one expected that the boosters clubs would come under it.
Virginia law lets localities decide whether to impose business taxes and requires that the taxes be equitable, Whiting said. That mandate, she added, prevents localities from exempting some businesses, such as the boosters, from the tax.
Whiting said she tried unsuccessfully in 1984 to get the County Board to waive the $25 tax, as Fairfax County does, for businesses grossing under $10,000 annually.
Alexandria's tax is $30, but an official there said it had not occurred to them to tax school clubs.