Whichever Presidential and Congressional candidates Mount Vernon voters select on Nov. 8, they should vote against the proposed Fairfax County meals tax.
The chair of Board of Supervisors has admitted that the 4 percent tax on prepared food will not solve the county’s budget problem. It is doubtful that it would enhance education services either.
If the promised 70 percent of the $99 million additional revenue is spent on the school system, it would represent only a 3 percent boost on top of the current county education budget. But after the promised pay increase to teachers — recently revealed as the primary use of the additional revenue — relatively little would be left to devote to activities that could improve local educational standards.
And we should keep in mind that teachers’ salaries in Fairfax County ranked fourth out of 144 counties and cities in Virginia in 2015 — behind only Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church, all of which have higher living costs.
In Alexandria, where a meals tax has been imposed (no referendum is required in a city), the school system makes precisely the same complaints about underfunding that we hear in Fairfax County. Unsurprisingly, Alexandria’s meals tax has been swallowed up within the overall city budget.
At least in Alexandria, the restaurants are well patronized by tourists, businesses and other outsiders who are prepared to pay a premium for their meals. In Mount Vernon, where fast food restaurants predominate, the new burden will fall mainly on local residents.
Perhaps the worst part of the meals tax is that it is regressive — it will be paid disproportionately by lower income families. It is ironic that political leaders who proudly call themselves “progressives” rally around a tax that hits the poorest members of our community hardest, especially those working long, unsocial hours, sometimes working multiple jobs and relying on fast food for their daily sustenance.
Clearly the tax will also have a negative impact on local restaurant, catering and hospitality businesses. Any economist will tell you that a consumption tax will reduce consumption. For example, tobacco taxes are deliberately designed to reduce demand for cigarettes because of the health problems associated with smoking.
If Mount Vernon residents change their eating habits and cut back a little on restaurant expenditure, the collective impact could be substantial. Opinions differ as to the severity, but a meals tax can be expected to cause some local restaurants to close and to result in layoffs.
Remember that Fairfax County homeowners are also being hit next year with higher property taxes averaging a whopping $304. So expect spending in restaurants, as well as in other local businesses, to suffer as consumers try to find ways to save some money.
Is there another option? Fortunately, yes. The county should be focusing much more closely on how it delivers its services. Trimming out waste in the $4.01 billion county budget would help.
It is also high time that Fairfax County allowed a fully independent audit of its school system. An audit that delivers just 5 percent in efficiencies (surely not an unreasonable expectation) would provide far more for teachers and students than a meals tax. By contrast, the 2013 Gibson benchmarking efficiency review identified paltry savings of $2 million per year, despite also finding that little more than half of the parents surveyed thought that their tax dollars were actually being well spent. What is clearly needed is a broad audit in which all education spending is reviewed, from top to bottom and without political interference.
Meanwhile, expanding the commercial tax base would create a larger and more balanced revenue stream for the county to spend. In short, the Board of Supervisors should stop discouraging new tax-paying businesses
from locating in Mount Vernon District.
Morality and economics sometimes pull in different directions. For example, while higher pay is a good thing, increases in the minimum wage must be weighed against economic impacts like the loss of jobs. But in the case of a meals tax, both the morality and the economics scream “no.” By any measure, it is immoral to tax food. To do so in a way that places the greatest additional burden on those who can least afford to pay only adds insult to injury.
I urge my many friends in Mount Vernon District, of all political persuasions, to vote “no” to the meals tax on Election Day.