Fairfax County voters will decide in November whether to increase the price of restaurant meals by up to 4 percent in Virginia’s largest municipality to generate new revenue for public schools and other services.
After years of debating whether to impose a meals tax, the county’s Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 2 on Tuesday to place the question on the ballot this fall during what is expected to be a high-turnout presidential election.
Supervisors Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) and Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) voted against the measure.
Officials estimate that a meals tax of up to 4 percent would generate up to $96 million in new tax revenue, 70 percent of which would go toward county schools, according to the ballot measure. The remainder would fund other county services, capital improvements and some property tax relief for homeowners, who have complained about the county’s increasingly high cost of living.
“This has been the subject of many discussions,” board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said before the vote, referring to repeated attempts to propose a meals tax in the past.
Those efforts were beaten back by restaurant associations and other business groups that said such a tax would lead to higher prices or job cuts. Business groups already have vowed to defeat the ballot measure in November.
“We know there’s going to be a long-term effect on our business in terms of people only have so much money to spend,” said Claude Andersen, corporate operations manager of Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which has two locations in the county. “If the expendable income that they have is going to the county, then there is going to be less to spend on prepared food.”
School officials and Pat Hynes, chair of the Fairfax County School Board, applauded the meal tax as much needed.
“This gives the community an opportunity to allow the county to fund the needs of the school system after several years of cuts,” Hynes said. “It’s an opportunity to reinvest, to continue to recover.”
Tuesday’s vote came after an acrimonious budget battle earlier this year between county supervisors and school officials, with both sides worrying that the region’s stubbornly anemic economy is not generating enough revenue to maintain high-quality services in one of the country’s wealthiest jurisdictions.
The county approved a 2017 budget that raises property taxes by 4 cents per $100 of assessed value and will increase average homeowner tax bills by $304. That agreement allowed the school system — which has been losing teachers to higher-paying school systems elsewhere in the region — to raise teachers’ salaries.
County budget officials said the spending plan still leaves Fairfax coffers short by about $77 million next year. With about 80 percent of county revenue coming from property taxes and automobile taxes, County Executive Edward L. Long Jr.’s office recommended that Fairfax supervisors find new ways to bring in income.
The meals tax would apply to restaurant meals and prepared food purchased at convenience stores and other markets. Elsewhere in Northern Virginia, Arlington County and Alexandria have 4 percent meals tax rates. The District has a 10 percent meals tax.
Both supporters and opponents of the Fairfax measure predicted a heated public debate over the issue until the November election.
County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) argued that Fairfax residents should be heard on the issue, particularly since so many believe that property taxes in the county are too high.
The measure gives Fairfax voters “the chance to take advantage of their democratic ability to cast a vote on whether or not this is a fair tax,” McKay said. “It’s time that we asked them that question and that we live with the consequences of it.”