Troubled by the Board of Supervisors’ recent decision to increase the property tax rate and its over-reliance on that source to make up for shortfalls in the county’s growing financial needs, Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland once again urged his board colleagues to support placing on the fall election ballot a referendum to approve a meals tax, which he calls more fair than the real estate tax.
In his formal request to the board, Hyland said: “A food and beverage tax would bring in between $80 and $100 million a year in new revenue. … Almost all surrounding jurisdictions have implemented a food and beverage tax. … In the FY 2014 budget, one penny on the tax rate equates to $20.65 million. The board could make a commitment (in the future) to lower our real estate tax rate by one or two cents and still have funding for critical projects.”
His proposal was met with board opposition but much less so than in the past, he said. Hyland is optimistic that the board, which agreed to consult with the business community and other community leaders before voting up or down on his proposal, will agree when he brings it up again for a formal vote a month from now. He believes that he already has five votes on the board for a referendum and that once the results of the business and community outreach and consultation effort is completed and a strategic plan for its promotion adopted, he will pick up additional board support to place it on the November Ballot.
“It is time for the board to step up to the plate and support placing this commercial food and beverage tax on the ballot,” Hyland said. “Lacking the authority for the county government to raise money from sources other than real estate, similar to the way cities can raise money, makes no sense. … For most people it is a choice whether or not to go out to eat at a local restaurant; paying for the increase in the real estate tax is not a choice for residents.”
He pointed out that the board adopted at its recent retreat a goal to make housing affordable for all residents and raising the real estate tax was not the way to fulfill that commitment. He also said that during the budget deliberations the business community testified against raising the real estate tax. He expressed confidence that businesses will eventually support a meals tax referendum.
As part of an overall strategy to promote the value of a meals tax, Hyland wants to list the programs on the referendum which would be funded if the meals tax was enacted so that voters would know specifically what their vote would go for. For example, Hyland suggested in his formal remarks before the board, “the board should pledge to our residents that if this motion passes, and if they approve a food and beverage tax referendum, the board will lower the real estate tax rate, help support our schools, build new artificial turf fields, expand Head Start, support our transit networks, or do any combination of tax relief, construction, renovation or programmatic support or expansion … the Board supports.” In addition, if the referendum passes, Hyland vowed to make an effort to lower the real estate tax rate in subsequent budgets by the amount of money raised by the meals tax.
If the past history of the meals tax referendum is any indication passage will not be easy. In a special April 1992 election, the meals tax referendum was defeated by a 57.6 to 42.4 percent margin. The turnout in the special election was only 24.6 percent of registered voters. Hyland observed that times have changed and that if properly explained, with a description of the list of programs which will be funded if the meals tax passes, the public will support passage.