|FCPS Superintendent Karen Garza speaks in support of a meals tax.|
“I’m profoundly proud of our school system and also deeply concerned about its future,” said Garza, who noted she was participating in the event hosted by the Vote Yes Meals Tax campaign on her own time and as a private citizen.
When voters go to the polls on Nov. 8, they will have a chance to vote yes or no on a meals tax that would raise the cost of dining out in Fairfax County by 4 percent. The tax is estimated to generate approximately $99 million in the first year, with 28 percent of that amount from non-county residents, including commuters and tourists.
If passed, 70 percent of the net revenues from the meals tax would be dedicated to Fairfax County Public Schools. The balance would support county services, capital improvements, and property tax relief.
The fundraiser, in the backyard of a home in Falls Church, attracted a long list of public officials, including supervisors, school board members, and state legislators.
The Board of Supervisors authorized a referendum on a meals tax in June. The board does not have the authority to impose a meals tax unless it’s approved by voters
The supervisors believe a meals tax is important to reduce the county’s dependence on real estate taxes. Currently about 65 percent of the county’s general fund budget comes from real estate taxes. Almost 90 percent of the county’s non-property tax revenues are capped, limited, or controlled by the state.
The school system already eats up 52 percent of the county budget. State and federal budget cuts are making FCPS more reliant on county revenue, while FCPS costs are increasing, mainly due to enrollment increases.
Without a meals tax, the county would have to cut core services, including education and infrastructure.
Opponents of a meals tax charge it would drive restaurants out of business. But that has not been the case in other communities that have meal taxes.
No one decides not to go to a restaurant in Falls Church or Fairfax because they have a meals tax,” said Del. Marcus Simon. “No one thinks like that. It’s not part of the calculation.”
Fairfax County is one of the few jurisdictions in the area that doesn’t have a meal tax. The District of Columbia’s meal tax is 10 percent, and Falls Church, Arlington, Fairfax City, and Alexandria each have a 4 percent meals tax.
“We really, really need it,” Simon said, noting that his kids’ two favorite teachers left for schools in Arlington, where their salaries are $10,000 to $15,000 higher.
Teacher pay in Fairfax County is still less than half way to the market average in the region, despite a $40 million budget increase approved last year, Garza said. “Never should Fairfax County be at the very bottom in compensation in this region.”
BoS Chair Sharon Bulova believes the meals tax will pass. The last time a meals tax was on the ballot, in 1992, the timing was bad, she said. It was presented to the public in a special election, which drew a lot of opponents, while this year it’s on a ballot with the presidential candidates.
“No one like paying taxes,” Bulova said, but people want government services. She urged advocates for the meals tax to talk to neighbors to urge them to support it and when dining out, tell restaurateurs who oppose it that they’re wrong on this issue.
“It’s not going to be easy but we will absolutely do this,” she said.
The meals tax would cover all ready-to-eat prepared food and beverages purchased at restaurants, cafeterias, coffee shops, taverns, delis, hotdog stands, and food trucks. It would also apply to ready-to-eat foods, such as items from delis and salad bars at grocery and convenience stores.
The meals tax would not apply to groceries, vending machines, cafeterias restricted to employees, schools, daycare centers, hospitals, nursing homes, and meals served by nonprofits as fundraising activities. The tax would not apply to food sales in Clifton, Herndon, and Vienna, which already have a meals tax.
If the meals tax is approved by voters, it would take effect on July 1, 2017. The BoS might hold public hearings in February on an ordinance to establish the rate and terms of the meals tax.