Going out in Fairfax County could get more expensive

WASHINGTON — Going out to eat in Fairfax County could get a little bit more expensive if a county board task force recommends instituting a meals tax to help avoid repeating recent budget challenges.

County Board Chair Sharon Bulova announced the task force looking into the meals tax on Tuesday, the same day the board voted to raise the property tax rate by half a cent, and raise some fees.

Virginia law allows local governments to levy a tax of up to 4 percent on prepared food that is bought ready to be eaten. That includes food and drinks sold at restaurants, fast food and the salad bars inside grocery stores. It does not apply to vending machines.

The 4 percent tax is in addition to the state sales tax, and amounts to 20 cents on a $5 meal, or $2 on a $50 meal.

An estimate last year projected that a 1 percent meals tax would have brought in $22 million in fiscal year 2014, while a 4 percent tax would have brought the county $88 million.

The report estimated that between 26 and 31 percent of the tax money would come from people who live outside Fairfax County, including many of the approximately 350,000 people who commute in from another jurisdiction.

Under state law, Fairfax County voters would have to approve a meals tax at the ballot box before one could take effect.

A meals tax referendum failed in Fairfax County in 1992 on a 58 percent to 42 percent vote. More recently, Loudoun County voters rejected a meals tax in 2008 by a 70-30 margin, while two meals taxes were approved by voters in the last few years elsewhere in the commonwealth.

Within Fairfax County, the towns of Vienna and Herndon already have their own meals tax which would not be impacted by a referendum.

Elsewhere in Northern Virginia, Alexandria, Arlington, the City of Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park all have the maximum 4 percent meals tax.

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