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Fairfax County Board: Meals Tax Back on Table

A transportation funding gap may need to be filled

The  just introduced an unpopular revenue source for discussion—a 4 percent meals tax. 

Why a Meals Tax? 

The Board has been stirred by "devolution"—a proposal in Gov. Bob McDonnell's transportation package to shift maintenance responsibilities of secondary roadways to local governments. Doing so would cost the county $100 million annually, and Tuesday, the board began discussing a 4 percent meals tax worth about $80 million as an alternative in filling the gap. 

"The subject of a meals tax comes up quite a lot," said Board Chair Sharon Bulova to Patch from a board retreat at Lorton's Workhouse Arts Center. "If we end up having to take over the maintenance of roads, which I am opposed to, I think it will cost a significant amount of local revenue."

McDonnell's plan includes:

  • A statewide report that would analyze devolution in localities with populations greater than 200,000. 
  • The creation of a Metropolitan Planning Organization in Northern Virginia

Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay fears a "deal with the devil." "If we're granted the authority to have a meals tax, but it requires us to take on road maintenance, then that's a deal with the devil that nets no new transportation projects for Fairfax County," he said. "All that allows us to do is take on a state responsibility they don't want to do anymore and to tax our residents."

A Tough Sell

The Board voted 7-3 against a meal tax in 2009, and county voters turned it down in 1992. 

Fairfax County Executive Tony Griffin advised the board, if necessary, to put a positive spin on the concept of a meals tax. "Introduce it during a presidential election year to get the highest turnout," he said. "Impose a meals tax for four years, sunset it, list the [transportation] projects you are going to build [with the funds], and if it works, then come four years hence with a new list of projects... That's how you can build the trust. If you can demonstrate you've done the right thing they'll support it again."

Braddock District Supervisor John Cook, a Republican, is open to discussing a meals tax. "We can make a real difference in the quality of life in people, and it's what they want us to do, and what people want is the roads fixed. We ought to be addressing that. It is a local government function," he told the board. "But, to make it work, to go to the population and say: 'We've got these ideas on funding transportation,' we have to say: 'We won't touch your property taxes.'"

Bad for Business? 

"Are they talking about that again?" said Holly Dougherty, executive director of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce (MVLCC), to Patch. "In past years, the chamber has opposed meals taxes, particularly because of the burden on restaurants and start-ups. But right now, we have no position on it." 

Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland, a Democrat, supports the tax. "Restaurants have as much of an interest in education and transportation than anyone," he said. "They have a stake in the quality of roads and they should be at the table."

Katy Fike is the former president of the MVLCC. "Restaurants are afraid that if there's a meals tax, that customers will go to Alexandria or to Prince William County," she said. "I don't think it will have an impact. It hasn't in Arlington and they've had a meals tax for 10 or so years. Really, if some people want hamburgers at Five Guys on Richmond Highway, that's where they're going to go."

Greg Brandon February 09, 2012 at 01:23 PM
I'll agree with "11" on matching revenues to expenses. Higher gas tax goes to road maintenance. Meals tax goes to health and human services. I'll throw in increasing the tobacco tax, currently second lowest in the nation at 30 cents/pack. (Even Republican Governor Haley Barbour doubled Mississippi's tobacco tax to 60 cents/pack a few years ago.) Localities may increase the tobacco tax just as they can establish a meals tax. Tobacco tax revenues should be tied to county health services.
Groovis Maximus February 09, 2012 at 03:49 PM
Isn't anyone even a little bit outraged that the State plans to "devolve" responsibility for the secondary roads without "devolving" our tax funds to pay for it? We get about 21 cents back for every tax dollar sent to Richmond. Now we're going to get even less service for our money and we have to find $100 million to keep our roads maintained?
Greg Brandon February 09, 2012 at 04:10 PM
I'll also second Groovis's outrage!
Linda Bartlett February 09, 2012 at 09:49 PM
"Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay fears a "deal with the devil" McKay is chair of the transportation committee and his usual method of dealing with the transportation mess in the County is to wave his fist and rat on about getting the state down here to fix our roads, somthing he knows very well is not ever going to happen. If the devolution happens, as it should, Mr McKay is going to have to be responsible for results. On this matter he and Bulova think alike and being resposbiile for results is not part of their agenda. They are more into special interests instead of down-to-earth, "concrete" projects that benefit everyone.
cmvoorhees February 14, 2012 at 12:28 AM
In 1992 (about 20 years ago), county voters opposed the meal tax. Times have changed in the last 20 years and Fairfax County is behind in funding basic services to citizens. And now, the Board of Supervisors brings up the Meal Tax as a possible solution when the County will be hit with transportation maintenance costs. Why hasn't the Board of Supervisors polled county voters on the Meal Tax within the last 5 years?

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