Until Saturday, the biggest talking point of the budget process had received no public input. The new one percent increase on the city’s meals tax to fund an increase in dedicated funding to affordable housing was introduced during the city’s add-delete process, meaning that public discussion of the tax increase had to wait until after the budget reliant on the increase had already been approved.
And there were opinions.
For restaurateurs in the city, the tax was another new burden on a city already struggling with a reputation for being unfriendly to businesses. While nearly all of the speakers made it clear in their comments that they support affordable housing, they said restaurants were picked to carry that weight because they made an easy target with a taxing mechanism already in place.
“I think it is inherently wrong to put the entire burden of affordable housing increase on restaurant industry,” said Mark Tate. “Not fair that it’s not spread out amongst the community. Don’t think restaurant industry should shoulder the whole blame.”
Nicole Jones from the coffee shop Stomping Ground said the tax would hurt the kind of working class people affordable housing was supposed to protect.
“This tax will hinder ability to offer staff two weeks paid vacation, maternity leave, health insurance,” said Jones. “[Of the staff] 100 percent, myself included as an owner, all are apartment dwellers and many in affordable housing. I’m speaking on behalf of myself and my staff, many of whom this tax is supposed to be helping.”
“There is an appearance that restaurants are making a killing, but they’re not,” said Sue Kavalski from the Del Ray Business Association. “It’s a day-to-day budgeting process. This is one more item that makes it difficult. Restaurants and retail businesses up and down King Street and across Alexandria are closing their doors every day. This is one more item that makes it difficult for them to keep their doors open.”
Some of those against the increase noted with dismay that they were arguing a lost cause.
“It’s a dog and pony show,” said Bill Blackburn. “This is already in the budget. It’s disturbing, and I’m going to use the phrase [Councilman Willie Bailey] used about kicking can down the road. He’s right. But we’ve also kicked the can down the road on small business and growing commercial tax base. I’m concerned about damage to fragile reputation of city. Long term: we’ve made a mistake.”
But for those working in affordable housing, the tax was another necessary stop-gap measure to offset the downward spiral of affordable housing properties in Alexandria. For a decade, market-rate affordability in the city has been on a rapid decline, and 2017 was the first year in the city’s history the number of committed affordable units surpassed the number of market-rate affordable units.
“I realize restaurant owners are concerned, but I hope to bring a positive aspect to the change,” said Betsy Faga from the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection. “How much do you pay for a meals tax in Arlington or Falls Church? I don’t know, and I don’t look at my checks for that reason. Would it make a difference where you ate? I would certainly expect no.”
“I strongly support affordable housing,” said Louise Bennett, “our need is too great not to. I’m very pleased you have taken this action. We may never hear or see the others who will be thanking you: the police officer guarding our street who can live close to where she works, or the teacher teaching our neighbor’s children.”
On the dais, many of the arguments that had become familiar throughout the add-delete process resurfaced. Mayor Allison Silberberg said she tried to push for an alternative, while Councilman John Chapman and Councilman Timothy Lovain shot back that vague promises to add to next year’s budget aren’t viable alternatives. The meals tax votes were passed on a four to three vote, with Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, Councilmen Lovain and Paul Smedberg voting against over disagreements for how the funding would be allocated.
In a surprising move, however, the divided council did present a rare moment of open agreement between Mayor Allison Silberberg and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. During the final discussion, both agreed that in the future there needed to be a public hearing scheduled during the add/delete process instead of afterwards, when the ordinances voted on are already baked into the approved budget.