Column: No to the Meals Tax

Column: No to the Meals Tax

A food tax is not a silver bullet.

I have been opposed to the meals tax from the start, but what has concerned me most over the last several months has been the tactics used to try to convince our residents to vote for it and the county’s failure to deal with its spending problems. I would like to offer some clarity on these points and why I am against the meals tax.

The proponents of the meals tax insist the tax is for teachers’ salaries and tax relief. In fact, the ballot language referencing schools and tax relief was selected because it was the language that passed in other counties in Virginia and according to one supervisor “we need to use the language that will get it passed.” In reality, the Board of Supervisors will decide in April during the budget process how much funding goes to schools and then the School Board will decide how much funding goes to teacher raises and class size reductions. Despite the Board of Supervisors fully funding the School Board’s funding request last year, the funds were not focused on fixing our teacher salary issues.

If it passes, the meals tax will just be an additional $100 million tax on top of the $100M in taxes the board passed earlier this year (over my opposition). In the last five years, real estate taxes alone have increased 25 percent and skyrocketed by $565 million. As I have debated proponents of the meals tax over the last several months, there has been almost universal acknowledgement that Fairfax County has a spending problem. For example, Fairfax County offers its 35,000-plus county and school employees and administrators’ unparalleled and unsustainable pensions and pre-social security benefits that even surrounding jurisdictions do not pay. Despite my efforts to address this and other spending problems, there is no plan in place to address these unsustainable costs and benefits. The meals tax is a bad way to kick the can of addressing our spending problems down the road.

The meals tax is also bad way to address a spending problem because it is a regressive tax that targets a single industry and disproportionately hits those who can least afford it — the elderly, single working parents, young students, and people without other options. It is not a white tablecloth restaurant tax; it is a food tax. The meals tax would be on top of the current sales tax resulting in a 10 percent total tax on any prepared food, including the rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, the fountain drink from the convenience store, your morning coffee, and your food truck purchases. It is also a tax on a single industry — one that only has a 3 percent profit margin on average. This means the meals tax will result in the government making more money off of a restaurant than the restaurant itself makes in profit. This is fundamentally wrong. Restaurants not only provide thousands of young adults with their first job, they also give back to the community through sponsorships and donations.

Fairfax County voters have a decision to make. Do we settle for budget deficits and tax increases year after year, or do we send a message that enough is enough and it is time to address spending issues? I sympathize for those who support the tax; the Board of Supervisors and School Board have led them to believe that the meals tax is some sort of silver bullet to their budget and teacher salaries woes. Simply put, it is not.

Pat Herrity represents the Springfield District on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.