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The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will consider whether to take a meals tax to voters in a future election cycle.

Supervisor Gerald Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), a longtime advocate of a tax on restaurant meals, unsuccessfully proposed adding a voter referendum to this fall’s ballot.

A meals tax could bring in $80 million to $100 million per year in revenue, Hyland said, reducing the pressure on the county’s real estate tax to fund services. The county has very limited taxing authority, so it relies heavily on real estate taxes to fund county schools and other services.

“It’s clear that we can’t do certain things because that reliance restricts us,” he said.

While his fellow supervisors were not all ready to bring the issues to voters this fall, they agreed to move the discussion forward and consider it for a future election.

“I don’t think six months is long enough to develop the tactics we need in order to be successful,” said Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason). “We cannot afford another failure on a meals tax.”

The county last took the tax to referendum in an April special election in 1992, and it did not even come close to passing. About 57 percent of voters opposed it.

Current supervisors, including Hyland, said that if they take the issue to referendum again, they can’t repeat the mistakes of the past. They said the board at that time did not do enough to communicate with voters why the tax was needed, and the measure faced strong opposition from the restaurant industry.

Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said he strongly supports the idea of a meals tax, but said the board needs to “do our homework” before placing the issue on a ballot. That includes talking with the local chambers of commerce and the restaurant association about the proposal and why it would be good for businesses.

“We need a meals tax in Fairfax County, but we need to make sure we do it right,” Foust said.

Discussing Hyland’s proposal Tuesday, supervisors outlined reasons why the proposal is practical. For example, nearly every surrounding jurisdiction has exercised its authority to impose a tax on restaurant meals, including the towns of Herndon and Vienna, which are also part of Fairfax County.

“I have never heard anyone say, ‘I never go to eat there because of the meals tax,’” Gross said.

The additional money could be used to lower the real estate tax rate, as well as supporting additional services. Supervisor Jeff McKay said it will be important to highlight the real estate tax savings aspect.

“I do think it has a chance with the public, but that chance is increased dramatically if we get our business community on board,” McKay said.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com