Supervisor Gerald Hyland’s (D-Mount Vernon) decades-long effort to tax restaurant meals in Fairfax County can be compared to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the king condemned to an eternity of rolling a rock up a hill only to have it fall back to the bottom.
Last week, for the eighth time since taking office in 1988, Hyland unsuccessfully proposed adding a voter referendum on the meals tax to this fall’s ballot.
By Hyland’s estimate, a tax on meals could bring in up to $100 million a year in new revenue, reducing pressure on the county’s real estate tax to fund services. For those crunching numbers, that figure represents about a nickel off the tax rate for every Fairfax homeowner.
The last time Fairfax County took the meals tax to referendum — back in 1992 — about 57 percent of voters rejected it.
If properly explained to Fairfax residents, a meals tax could get some traction in the next year or two. Compared to the option of a 5- or 6-cent tax increase to balance next year’s budget, implementing a meals tax is a sensible option that places a healthy chunk of the burden on non-Fairfax residents.
Check out Tysons Corner Center’s parking lot on a typical weekend. There are hundreds of license plates from Maryland and Washington, D.C. There are also a fair share from Pennsylvania, Delaware and counties all over Virginia. Chances are many of those folks like to enjoy some food between stops at the Apple Store and Abercrombie & Fitch.
Same goes for those visiting the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Reston Town Center or dozens of other hot spots across the county.
It’s worth noting that diners in the city of Fairfax and towns of Herndon and Vienna have been paying a meals tax for years, largely without complaint.
Placing the entire funding onus on residential and commercial property owners isn’t a good short- or long-term strategy for Fairfax County.
For starters, that well is running dry. Northern Virginia’s commercial real estate leasing market has been flat for more than five years. According to real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, the region’s vacancy rate for office space hit 17 percent in the last quarter of 2012 and, given all of the uncertainty tied to sequestration-related budget cuts, could push 20 percent in the year ahead.
Cash-strapped Fairfax homeowners saddled with skyrocketing college tuition rates, double-digit toll hikes and larger healthcare premiums probably aren’t up for a bigger property tax bill next year, either.
Now, many are saying that in this economy, no new taxes should be introduced. We understand that and generally concur, but our concern is with the real estate tax that will grow ‘Jack in the Beanstock’-style if other options aren’t thoroughly explored.
If the meals tax proposal continues getting kicked to the curb, where is the money going to come from? In past years, the answer has been to cut critical services or raise the real estate tax.
Implementing a meals tax might allow Hyland and his colleagues to avoid either of those options for a few years.