The Herndon Town Council, looking for ways to hold down escalating property tax bills, is considering a restaurant meals tax for the third time in a decade.

The amount of a meals tax has not been formally proposed, but Town Attorney Richard B. Kaufman has written a draft ordinance calling for a 3.5 percent levy that would be tacked onto checks. Herndon, a town of 21,655 people, is a restaurant enclave in western Fairfax County.

Nearby cities and towns that have enacted meals taxes ranging from 2 percent to 4 percent include Alexandria, Fairfax City, Falls Church, Leesburg, Manassas and Vienna.

Unlike cities and towns, Virginia counties are prohibited from charging a meals tax without permission from the General Assembly. A Fairfax County request for new local taxing authority was turned down by legislators in the session that ended Feb. 22. County officials also want to charge a meals tax.

Herndon is facing the same pressure from property owners as the county. The average assessed value of a Herndon home jumped 11 percent from last year, fueling a rise in tax bills.

Mayor Richard D. Thoesen said he favors a meals tax to decrease the town's reliance on property taxes.

"It allows us to spread the burden a little bit to people who don't live in town but enjoy town services," Thoesen said, referring to estimates that up to 40 percent of Herndon's restaurant patrons come from outside the town limits.

A meals tax has twice been defeated in Herndon. The town's restaurant owners and at least one council member, Connie H. Hutchinson, said they worry about harming Herndon's restaurants, a key part of the town's economy.

Chuck Curcio, owner of the Tortilla Factory restaurant, one of Herndon's oldest eating places, has fought the idea in the past and again this year. He said he fears that the county's lack of a meals tax could give Fairfax restaurants a competitive edge.

"It's an additional tax," Curcio said. "I don't see any necessity in the town of Herndon for which they need additional tax revenue."

Thoesen said that characterizing the levy as an additional tax is a misrepresentation since the plan is to offset the meals tax with property tax relief for town residents.

"What we're trying to do essentially is restructure some of our taxes," he said, adding that a portion of the revenue generated from a meals tax could be used by the town to advertise its restaurants. Thoesen estimated that Herndon might be able to generate as much as $2.4 million in revenue and property tax relief from a meals tax.

Council member Michael L. O'Reilly, who headed a committee that recommended a meals tax, said a final decision could take as long as 60 days. If approved, the meals tax plan would be part of the town budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.