Fairfax County still weighing pros and cons of meals tax

WASHINGTON — Going out to eat in Fairfax County won’t cost more – at least not any time soon.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors accepted a task force’s report Tuesday on the feasibility and wisdom of adopting a meals tax, but it put off any action until members can go through the full list of pros and cons in the report..

The task force, convened by board chairwoman Sharon Bulova, was led by two former supervisors who were on the board in April, 1992 when voters rejected a meals tax.

“It was a different time, it was a different era,” former Congressman Tom Davis told the board.

“There is a wide difference of opinion on the task force depending [on] who they are representing, whether you need more revenue in the county or not, and then if you do need it, would it just be easier to raise the real estate tax versus going after a new tax and targeting one industry,” Davis said.

If the board decides to move forward with the referendum, Davis says the task force agreed the vote should be held in a general election rather than during a special election.

“That maximizes participation, it holds down costs, but it allows a broader part of the electorate to participate. And secondly, the revenue should be dedicated. It could be dedicated to a wide variety of things from tax reduction to transportation to whatever you pick.”

Former Board Chair Kate Hanley chaired the task force with Davis, and describes the four meetings as “lively”.

“This is your decision and we wanted to put all the information and all the pros and cons in one place,” she told the board.

“One of the things that I can tell you is that this is an issue that arouses very strongly held and long-held opinions about how we should proceed with this,” she added.

The report doesn’t recommend meals tax or say it’s against one. Instead it lists pros and cons.

Among the reasons the task force finds to put the tax to a referendum are the need for more money as the school system and new development strains the county budget, the opportunity to diversify the county’s revenue stream away from real estate taxes, and the chance to give voters an opportunity to decide the issue again.

Among the reasons not to put the meals tax on the ballot are that the county could manage its budget better rather than raising more taxes to cover increased spending, that a meals tax would put a higher burden on low-income people and that the tax only impacts purchases in the food service industry.

Virginia law requires the county to put the tax to voters before adopting it, and also requires it apply at all restaurants, delis, concessions and other places selling prepared foods. The law means the county could not selectively tax something like alcohol while not taxing restaurant meals.

If approved by voters, the county board would be able to impose a tax of up to 4 percent on qualifying food, which would be in addition to the existing 6 percent state sales tax in the county.

The county estimates the tax would bring in about $90 million, with about 28 percent of that coming from people who live outside of Fairfax County.

Alexandria, Arlington and the City of Fairfax are among the jurisdictions in Northern Virginia that already have the tax.

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