Nine-year-old Nicolas Dunne trudged after his father one recent Saturday, knocking on doors of likely voters and seeking support for what his dad considers a crucial cause.
The issue: Whether diners in Fairfax County should pay four cents extra for every dollar spent on restaurant meals to raise money for county schools, parks and other services.
“Are you familiar with the meals tax?” Matthew Dunne asked one resident, as Nicolas, whose civic efforts were stalling a trip to a youth soccer match, stood glumly behind him. He had a sign pinned to his T-shirt urging people to vote “yes” in the Nov. 8 county referendum.
The child was just one ploy to win support in a political battle that is intensifying in Virginia’s largest jurisdiction, where a lukewarm regional economy has made it harder to fund the needs of an increasingly elderly and economically diverse population.
County officials estimate that a 4 percent meals tax would generate $96 million in extra tax revenue per year, which supporters say would help avoid large property taxes increases while keeping up with the demands of an aging infrastructure and a growing school system of 186,000 students.
Opponents say that the new tax — which would also apply to food purchased at convenience stores — would drive business away from this wealthy suburb, impose a new burden on financially stretched consumers and cost some restaurant workers their jobs.
Both sides have launched campaigns to win over county voters that rely on public relations strategists, grass-roots messaging and political spin.
For the local unions, school board members and PTA groups who support the meals tax, that has meant including students among the ranks of volunteers knocking on voters’ doors to talk about crowded classrooms and teachers leaving for higher-paying districts. The measure’s advocates also have organized “Dine Out” trips to restaurants whose owners support the proposed tax.
Meanwhile, the restaurant groups and chambers of commerce who oppose the measure call themselves “Fairfax Families Against the Meals Tax,” in an attempt to portray the issue as one that could hurt working-class families and blue-collar employees.
Inside restaurants, owners have posted large signs that characterize the measure as a “10 percent Food Tax” — counting both the existing 6 percent state and local sales tax and the proposed levy of 4 percent.
“We don’t think that it’s fair that it’s targeting one specific industry, and we know that it negatively affects the families and the people that work in the industry,” said Jon Norton, chief executive of the Great American Restaurants chain in Northern Virginia. “People are already frustrated with the amount of taxes that they’re paying in this county.”
Supporters say the price increase will be minimal — an extra dollar on a $25 meal, or 40 cents on a $10 purchase. Neighboring Arlington County and Alexandria already have a 4 percent meals tax, and Herndon, Falls Church and Fairfax City — all in Fairfax County — have meal taxes ranging from 2.5 percent to 4 percent. Loudoun and Prince William counties, which also border Fairfax, do not have a meals tax.
Among the greatest challenges for both proponents and opponents of a meals tax is to make voters aware of the ballot question in Fairfax during what has been a volatile presidential election year.
In addition to the open campaigning, there is quiet lobbying from both camps: school board members and PTA leaders pitching parents as they drop off their children at school, and restaurant workers leaning over to customers to confide how a meals tax could hurt them by lower tips or layoffs.
“I survive off this job; this pays all of my bills,” said Michelle Quiroga, 22, a bartender at the Coastal Flats restaurant in Fairfax Station. “It affects me personally.”
Often, these efforts are met with apathy.
Matthew Dunne said he’s passionate about a meals tax because it could determine whether the county continues to fund some specialty programs in his three children’s schools, such as Spanish-language immersion classes.
“For some children and families, that’s the make-or-break difference,” he said.
Yet, on the morning when he and about 20 other volunteers spread through the Falls Church section of the county in search of support, Dunne and his son encountered several residents who had no idea what they were talking about. Others appeared only mildly interested.
“It’s something I’ve heard about, but I haven’t given it much thought,” said Natalia Cespedes, a mother of four who was approached by the Dunnes on her front lawn.
Smiling, she glanced at Nicolas and promised: “I’ll think about it more.”
On another block, Alexandra Lyalikov, 16 and Owen Williams, 15 — members of the Young Democrats club at their high school who were recruited to participate in the effort — waited about five minutes for one man to emerge from a basement he and some friends were digging beneath his house. Ultimately, he told them he wasn’t interested in hearing what they had to say.
“That was so awkward,” Lyalikov said.
Henry Crowder, who helps run a catering company that does business in Fairfax County, initially thought the teenagers were seeking votes against the measure, which pleased him.
“It’s just going to hurt — especially small businesses,” he said.
But, after realizing they wanted him to support the meals tax, he added that his wife is a former teacher and he understands that local governments need to raise taxes to invest in schools. “As long as they spend it in the right place, I guess I’m okay with it,” he said.
Doug Dillard halfheartedly said “sure” he supports the idea, even though his 8-year-old son’s elementary school in the Falls Church area seems to be in good shape.
“I don’t know a whole lot about it,” Dillard said. “But I will probably read up on it more now.”
Asked by Lyalikov if he’d be willing to volunteer to garner more support, Dillard grinned and said, “No, thanks.”