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Friday, September 30, 2016

Meals tax debated at public forum

A forum on the meals tax featured (from the left) supporters Phil Niedzielski-Eichner and Pat Hynes and opponents Pat Herrity, and Jon Norton.
At a forum on a Fairfax County meals tax, supporters of the referendum argued the extra revenue is needed to maintain a high-quality school system, while opponents said they preferred spending cuts.   

The referendum, on the Nov. 8 ballot, would impose a 4 percent tax on restaurant meals and prepared food. If passed, it is expected to generate up to $100 million in the first year, with 70 percent of the revenue dedicated to Fairfax County Public Schools. The balance would support other county services, capital improvements, and property tax relief.

At the forum, school board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) and Phil Niedzielski-Eichner, a management consultant and former school board member, spoke in favor of the meals tax. They squared off against Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity (Springfield) and Jon Norton, CEO of Great American Restaurants, which owns nine restaurants including Silverado in Annandale.

The forum, at Luther Jackson Middle School Sept. 29, was hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area. Mary Kimm, the editor of the Connection Newspapers, was the moderator.

A meals tax is needed to maintain an excellent school system, said Niedzielski-Eichner, while “an increased reliance on the property tax is threat to the schools.”

“People expect excellent schools,” Hynes added. Within the region, Fairfax county is near the bottom in teacher salaries and near the top in elementary class sizes. 

“A meals tax means we will have to employ less people,” Norton said, and servers will get a 10 to 20 percent reduction in tips. Because it covers meals at McDonald’s, as well as expensive restaurants, it will hurt low-income people the most, he said. 

“It’s a regressive tax that hurts low-income families, working moms, and the elderly – people who don’t have time to prepare meals at home,” Herrity said.

“Eating out is not always a luxury any more but it is always a choice,” Hynes said.  Most surrounding jurisdictions already have a meals tax, she noted.

Herrity raised doubts about the Board of Supervisors’ intention to actually allocate 70 percent of the revenue to schools – even though that’s the language in the referendum. He claimed the supervisors merely used that figure to convince people to vote for it, while the actual funding amount for schools will be determined next spring during the budget process.

“There is no qualification, no ambiguity. Seventy percent goes to the schools. That is on the ballot,” Niedzielski-Eichner countered.

Those funds are in addition to, not a replacement, for whatever the supervisors allocate to the Fairfax County Public Schools, Hynes added. The school board directed the superintendent to use the $67 million generated by the meals tax for FCPS to raise teacher salaries. Hynes also plans to advocate for class size reduction.

Niedzielski-Eichner said it’s important to diversify the tax base, noting there are no other options for generating revenue. Sixty-five percent of the county’s budget is from property taxes. “Homeowners are bearing an increasing burden,” he said.

Herrity disagreed that there aren’t other options. “We can grow the commercial tax base,” he said, and can cut spending “instead of feeding the revenue monster.” He also called for more efforts to get the state government to allocate more money to Fairfax County.

“The county’s ability to change the dynamics in Richmond is a long-term prospect while the needs here are immediate,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. The county only gets a quarter back from ever dollar it sends to Richmond.

The notion that “we can save our way out of a $70 million deficit is just ludicrous,” he said. Meanwhile, FCPS is facing a $100 million deficit.

Unlike the sales tax, 100 percent of the revenue from a meals tax will stay in Fairfax County, Hynes said. And 28 percent of the revenue will come from non-county residents, such as commuters and tourists.

The way to improve the commercial tax base is by having great county services and great schools that will attract businesses to the county, she said.

Letting the school system deteriorate further will have a negative impact on property values, Niedzielski-Eichner noted.

“I don’t believe we have deteriorating services. We still have one of best school systems in the country,” Herrity said. “Adding to the tax burden will drive taxpaying residents out.”

A major part of Herrity’s solution to reduce spending is to cut back on pensions and Social Security supplements to county employees. New young employees aren’t concerned about what they might be getting when they are 55, he said.

Hynes objected to that proposal, stating, “Our employees deserve a dignified retirement after a lifetime of serving the community.” 

FCPS has already made deep cuts in the budget in recent years, the pro-meals tax side argued. During the recession FCPS cut $500 million and 520 positions. Last year, FCPS’s per-pupil spending was $1,000 less than it was in 2008 in real dollars.

Meanwhile, FCPS is facing more challenges; Nearly 30 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and enrollment is growing. 

Running a school system isn’t like running a business, Hynes said. “We can’t put kids on a waiting list. We can’t say we don’t want to teach 20,000 students.” And the community doesn’t want to lose the great extracurricular programs that make FCPS one of the best in the country. “This community expects world-class schools.”

18 comments:

  1. "Homeowners are bearing an increasing burden,” he said." Mr. Eicher fails to acknowledge that the bulk of the meals tax will be paid by the very same homeowners who have been getting slammed by unequalized property tax increases. This is a pervasive tax that will have the effect of raising the tax on myriad food items to 10%. So, it would be foolish to assume that residents won't be paying hefty additional amounts in taxes. Moreover, if 70% of the revenue goes to the schools, this tax will have no impact on reducing property taxes. Whatever remains won't be enough to put a dent in other projects the county wants to fund much less provide tax relief. In other words, this is just another in a continuing series of assaults by the BOS on residents' wallets.

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    1. Also the referendum language itself is biased and misleading if you are not familar with the issue. It reads "For the purpose of reducing dependence on real estate taxes.." While the meals tax would indeed provide another source of revenue to the county, passing the meals tax would not reduce anyone's real estate taxes, as many of the proponents of the meals tax and this language imply. There is absoltely no real estate tax relief tied to passage of the meals tax. Further that 30% of meals tax revenue is dedicated to three items including real estate relief is meaningless as the Board could decide to dedicate less than 1% to property tax relief and virtually all of the 30% to the other two purposes.

      And it is not "ludicrous" to expect our county officials to cut $100 million from its $4 billion budget. Only someone with no concept of the value of money would pooh pooh the reasonableness of staying within a four billion dollar budget.

      And don't forget as the county touts how a meals tax will alleviate the burden on real property owners that those same leaders just passed a $93 million real estate tax increase, raising the average FFX county homeowner's tax by $304. Now they want another $70 million from county residents via a meals tax.

      If taxes are always increasing and new bonds (long-term debt) are constantly being approved, perhaps we don't have a revenue problem, but rather we have a spending problem.

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  2. "A meals tax is needed to maintain an excellent school system" ... Umm, "maintain"? Since when does Fairfax County have an "excellent school system"? Some of the schools are great, but others flail and barely make the grade (for example, Stuart High School which had recent issues with accreditation).

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    1. Probably since ffx county owns 13 of the top 20 school in the state?

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  3. I don't know why anyone would vote themselves a tax increase of any kind. We're already taxed to the limit, and basic necessities like food and clothing shouldn't be taxed at all (they aren't in other states).

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  4. Where was the prominent "private citizen" supporter of the meals tax, Karen Garda?

    Is she already searching for a home in Ohio?

    Pathetic Joke she made of herself campaigning for more taxes on the backs of the residents of Fairfax County when she knew she was getting out.

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  5. It helps my kids, so, I'm all for it.

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    1. Simple, true, and both respectful and respectable; well said.

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    2. Actually you are assuming that spending more money on schools automatically results in better educated children. If FFX's priority is better schools/education, the discussion would be about school choice, school vouchers and charter schools. That their only interest is increasing spending shows they are not serious about improving students' education. Stimulus, Obamacare, cash for clunkers--throwing money at a problem often only exasperates it.

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    3. The better question is what will happen when the school board burns through whatever money this latest tax generates. Most of this revenue appears destined to finance a bidding war for teachers between Fairfax and surrounding jurisdictions. If that's the case, there won't be much, if anything, left over to fund the seemingly endless list of "priorities" the school board has dreamed up. At least four BOS members have demonstrated a willingness to ratchet up property tax rates to fund whatever budget the school board submits. So, this tax certainly won't signal the end of those incessant demands for more school funding.

      Fairfax is already spending over half of its budget on education. That's lead to the creation of a pretty great school system. That isn't likely to change merely because a few teachers defect to Loudoun. The real issue here is whether taxpayers will continue putting up with paying an endless series of steep tax hikes to fund the school board's unattainable vision of a perfect school system. Since the school board has never respected any spending limits, that seems inevitable. Accordingly, since the tax hikes will continue coming, it makes sense for residents to vote down the one tax proposal they can actually defeat.

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    4. I think it past time to pool Booster Club money. Booster Clubs have created have-have not schools. Pooling the money raised equals out the opportunities for the students.

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  6. Why impose a meals tax and not a hotel tax? Most jurisdictions have significant hotel taxes. Not FFX County. Vote no on the meals tax and insist on a hotel tax instead.

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    1. While increasing the current hotels tax may be a better alternative than a new meals tax, why impose additiinal taxes at all. The BoS just increased real estate taxes by $93 million. This tax creep slowly but surely eats up household income and needs to be stopped now. At what point have residents paid enough in taxes? We know govt. is never going to stop asking for more taxes and is never going to stop spending beyond its budget. If we the citizens, whom govt. presumably serves, do not demand that these tax increases stop they never will. I don't like namecalling, but it is inconceivable to me that anyone would think imposing a new tax, a regressive one at that, is a good idea. Exercise common sense and vote no on the meals tax.

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  7. The proponents of this tax are hoping that voters will once again buy into the "it's only a few dollars more" argument. That approach relies on the assumption that no one will really minds paying a few hundred extra buck in taxes for a good cause. However, that approach breaks down when those tax increases don't end. In Fairfax, those incremental tax increases have accumulated into thousands of dollars in additional taxes. The BOS has also been busily adding more taxes such as the revived auto decal tax.

    The meals tax proposal is merely another manifestation of creeping taxation in Fairfax. I doubt if many residents have considered how much this tax will cost them or even if the projected revenue figures are accurate. It's not about spending a couple of extra cents on a candy bar. It's about getting taxed on about everything your convenience store sells plus even more for those $80 family meals at the Outback. So, it's about time for voters to consider whether they can continue paying just a few dollars more for every tax hike the BOS proposes.

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  8. Fairfax County Government revenues are the highest in history. The Government needs to learn how to spend its money wisely, not seek more revenues.

    Fairfax County resident taxes are the highest in history. The populace is overtaxed.

    The Meals Tax is a regressive tax, meaning that it will place a heavy burden on those people who can least afford it.

    A Meals Tax would send a message that Fairfax County is unfriendly to the restaurant business (including high-end restaurants in Tysons Corner), unlike Loudoun and Prince William Counties which have no such tax.

    A Meals Tax will cause restaurant patrons to provide smaller tips to waiters and waitresses, thereby harming people, including minorities, in starter jobs.

    A Meals Tax will target a single industry (restaurants) characterized by a high percentage of start-up small businesses, low profit margins, and high rates of failure (93% of restaurants don’t last five years).

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  9. First, restaurants have one of the highest turnover rates of any business. Many of them do not have a high profit margin and a number of them contribute to the community,
    especially schools.

    The idea that money raised from a meals tax is a panacea for what ails our schools is unrealistic. Accredidation problems, overcrowding, burgeoning special needs programs, a transient student population and over worked teachers require a concerted and comprehensive evaluation of the entire system.

    More money is not necessarily the answer.
    While the School Board is facing a considerable deficit, they still found $100,000 to fund a consultant to study a name change for J.E.B. Stuart HS. If the name change is approved, the estimated cost starts at $750,000.

    Let's hope that this is not a typical example of fiscal prudence and meeting crucial student needs.

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  10. Just say NO to the meal tax. Seniors depend on prepared foods from grocery stores. Seniors are on fixed incomes. The BoS=Board of Stupids are moronotrons for taxing prepared foods. I get the restaurant tax and understand maybe its needed, but the prepared food tax puts a burden on those who are just making it from week to week.

    If the BoS is so worried about their school budget then it better start cracking down on the boarding houses in our neighborhoods with so called "family members."

    The BoS in Fairfax continues to become more stupid while the BoS in adjoining counties seem to be getting smarter at growing their economies and services. Those municipalities have a meals tax but they put it to good use: good roads, sidewalks, clean gutters, good schools,bike lanes that actually go somewhere, parks and not to a bunch of illegals.

    BoS get smart or resign, we don't need more bad government.

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    1. Yeah! Fairfax is so stupid! with their terrible economy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-income_counties_in_the_United_States), their terrible schools (http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/search?state-urlname=Virginia), their horrible parks (http://www.onlyinyourstate.com/virginia/va-playgrounds/), their cutting breaks for all them damn illegals (http://dailycaller.com/2016/06/17/virginia-officials-propose-giving-illegal-immigrants-drivers-licenses/), their overwhelmingly crushing amount of Hispanics (http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/51510,51107,51153,51059,51). I could go on...

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