Fairfax County is considering asking voters to approve a tax on restaurant meals, an issue that has been a political third rail in the wealthy jurisdiction and triggered angry rallies and threats of electoral ruin the last time it was considered, in 1992.
After a grueling budget battle this year that saw its own rounds of heated protests, Fairfax must decide whether residents may be willing to pay taxes when dining at any of the county’s roughly 3,000 restaurants to generate as much as $88 million in new revenue for schools, libraries and other services.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) has convened a task force to recommend whether to draft a meals-tax referendum and, if so, how the money generated should be spent.
The group is chaired by former congressman Tom Davis (R), who was chairman of the Board of Supervisors during the 1992 meals-tax battle, and Democrat Katherine Hanley, also a former chairman of the board. The task force is to deliver its conclusions to the board by June 17, in time for officials to put the issue on the ballot in November if they choose to do so.
And, just like 22 years ago, passions are flaring. Advocates and opponents of a meals tax are both predicting job losses if their side doesn’t win, and they already have launched lobbying campaigns.
“We have a stressed-out community right now,” said Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, which argues that the county’s school system will continue laying off workers if it does not receive more money. The union recently began running local newspaper ads featuring a doe-eyed toddler and asking readers to “feed our communities” by supporting a meals tax.
“We’ve got parents who are sick, every year, of screaming for the schools, and the teachers in this county do not feel valued by the broader community,” Greenburg said.
Bulova said support for a 4 percent meals tax has been growing and was evident during the budget battles this year over funding for schools and other services that left all sides frustrated.
“Keep an open mind. And, listen to each other,” Bulova urged the 41-member task force, which includes representatives of restaurants, homeowner groups, unions, the PTA, Democrats and Republicans, the tea party and retired federal employees. Almost immediately, however, participants staked out their ground, cutting off one another and arguing over statistics that either supported or weakened a meals-tax proposal.
“Do you just go around the state opposing this tax wherever it appears?” Rex Simmons, a member of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, asked a lobbyist for the restaurant industry during the first few minutes of the group’s initial meeting.
“Why wouldn’t we oppose a tax that targets a specific industry?” came the sharp reply.
In Northern Virginia, meals taxes have been implemented in Alexandria, Arlington County and several smaller municipalities. The District also has a meals tax, and restaurant patrons in Maryland also pay meals taxes.
However, both Loudoun and Prince William counties recently shot down the idea of a meals tax after intense lobbying by restaurant groups, which argued that the tax would unfairly target an industry that is still struggling to recover from the 2008 recession while facing mounting pressure nationwide to increase employees’ minimum wages.
“It’s an overall fairness issue,” said Jim Wordsworth, owner of the JR Stockyards Inn steakhouse in Tysons Corner. A meals tax, he argued, would drive customers away and could keep large restaurants from relocating to that redeveloping neighborhood. “In my business, we cannot swim upstream against an economy of cost increases.”
Opponents also argue that Fairfax residents already feel overwhelmed by higher real estate and sewer taxes — costs that meals-tax proponents counter would be unnecessary if extra tax revenue was found elsewhere.
Jay Dick, a board member at the Arts Council of Fairfax County, said the constant pressure to fund county schools and other high-priority services has meant underfunding of the arts in Fairfax, which he argued is an economic development concern.
“We’ve got everything else going on, but our arts culture is kind of in the gutter right now,” Dick said, citing 2013 statistics showing that the county spends 45 cents in public funds per capita on the arts, compared with $1.34 per capita in Arlington and $11.32 per capita in the District.
John Niemiec, president of the Fairfax County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics union, said that next year’s World Police and Fire Games are expected to generate between $60 million and $80 million for Fairfax, with a good portion of that going to restaurants.
“We’d be leaving money on the table” if a meals tax wasn’t adopted before then, Niemiec said.
The public has heard little about the possibility of the tax, and county residents interviewed last week expressed a wide range of opinions.
“If it’s going for a good cause, like schools, then I wouldn’t mind it,” said Isaac Paul, 49, as he left a 7-Eleven in Clifton with a hot dog and a soft drink — purchases that would likely be subject to a meals tax.
“Four cents is like a blip on the radar,” agreed co-worker Richard Hawkins, 26.
Outside a nearby Panera restaurant, however, Julie Thompson, 37, said the recent increase in real estate taxes has left her with a bitter taste.
“They should think of other ways to come up with the money they need,” she said, while poking at her tomato soup.
Davis, the former congressman, said a meals tax seemed a reasonable alternative in 1992, given the dire financial straits in which the county found itself. But it became a volatile fight — with fellow Republicans turning against Davis and the restaurant industry waging what he called a “ferocious campaign” against Board of Supervisors members who supported a meals tax.
“These referendums are hard to pass,” Davis said. “If you go for it, you’d better get it. Or it’ll be a long time before anyone will want to take it up again.”