|A forum on the meals tax featured (from the left) supporters Phil Niedzielski-Eichner and Pat Hynes and opponents Pat Herrity, and Jon Norton.|
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.”