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Votes

Cig Tax Now Higher

Olsson's Bookstore, Lee's Market Get Approval for Cafes

Alexandria’s cigarette tax has gone from 30 cents a pack to 50 cents a pack by a vote of 6-1, with Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland voting against the measure.

The increase will raise an additional $1.1 million in revenue for the city each year. “I am not against all tax,” Cleveland said. “I understand how government works and know that taxes are needed for revenue. I just believe that we should allow our own Budget and Fiscal Advisory Committee to have an opportunity to study this matter more and express an opinion.

"Also, I would like to look at other ways to increase revenue. I am concerned about the impact of this tax on small businesses that will have to go through the expense of changing machines. I just don’t believe that we have studied the matter enough, especially when you look at the past couple of years and realize that revenue is up this year over what it was last year and was up last year over what it was the year before. I am not convinced that this is the way to go.”

Councilman David Speck asked Cleveland to offer other suggestions. “We already know that there are going to be budget cuts from the state,” he said. “We already know that we have to find ways to diversify our revenue sources. If not this, then what? I would like to hear some suggestions.”

Cleveland said they would be forthcoming. “Give me a month or so, and I will bring some suggestions back to the Council as part of the budget process,” he said.

Mayor Kerry J. Donley said that the matter had been discussed enough. “We gave everybody sufficient notice, and the chair of our Budget and Fiscal Advisory Committee polled that group by phone,” he said. “Nearly everyone agreed that this was the right way to go. Also, I believe that I have only received two e-mails and a phone call and we have only had one speaker. There has been no shortage of people coming down here to speak on issues that concern them today, so if there was strong objection to increasing this tax, I’m certain we would have heard it.”

Donley asked Mark Jinks, the assistant city manager for finance, to comment on Cleveland’s concern about the impact to small businesses.

“The tax is levied at the wholesale level,” Jinks explained. “Thus, when it gets to the cash register, it rings up as included. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be any real correlation between the size of the tax and the local price. For some reason, cigarettes are the cheapest at the CVS next to City Hall, even though we have a higher tax per pack than any of our neighboring jurisdictions.”

THOSE WHO LIKE TO enjoy a cup of coffee while they browse for books will have more space in which to do so at Olsson’s bookstore on South Union Street.

Old Town Civic opposed the expansion. “As we said last year, we believe that this is a way to get the camel’s nose under the tent and that this is just the beginning of wanting to operate a full-service restaurant,” said Carolyn Mirk, that organization’s president.

Councilwoman Joyce Woodson didn’t understand the concern. “Have we had any complaints about this business?” she asked. “My understanding is that the only thing they are asking is to expand their café. We have been talking about the lack of activity on the other three corners [near King Street] in this very location, and now we are objecting to an expansion that provides the only business activity there.”

Barbara Ross said that there had been no complaints. “The staff is recommending approval of this because we want to support a business that exists,” she said. “Other cafes have not been successful here, and we want to encourage Olsson’s. There have been no complaints.”

Councilwoman Claire Eberwein agreed with Woodson. “I don’t see what the problem is, either,” she said. “Personally, although they have withdrawn the request to serve wine, I see no problem with that, either. I mean, I don’t think you are going to go to a bookstore to get drunk and stagger onto the sidewalk. Presumably, when we get other businesses on the other three corners, some of that business might include the operation of a restaurant. We cannot hope to encourage businesses to locate there if we are going to make it so hard for existing businesses to expand. We need to approve this.”

And they did, unanimously. Olsson’s can expand its café seating.

LEE’S MARKET will now have indoor seating and serve sandwiches and other light fare to its customers. The market is located on Bashford Lane.

“This will be a good thing for the neighborhood,” said Poul Hertel, a neighborhood resident and civic activist. “It will be nice to be able to sit down and have a cup of coffee or a sandwich.”

The market had asked to be allowed to operate both an indoor and an outdoor restaurant area. “Why don’t we allow them to open the indoor restaurant now and the outdoor area in six months?” asked Councilwoman Joyce Woodson. “This way we can see how one works before we allow the other.”

Some residents had objected to the outdoor area. “Let’s allow them to have the indoor seating and come back to us for the outdoor,” suggested Mayor Kerry J. Donley. “They are not asking to be allowed to serve wine or beer, so let’s just see how things go.”