Few families experience the daily frantic pace of bad traffic and overscheduling quite like Northern Virginians. As lives become busier, the sit down home cooked meal is becoming less frequent. Restaurants have become a respite for families and loved ones to exhale and reconnect. Prepared foods in grocery and retail stores offer ready-to-eat options others. Coffee shops and convenience stores provide a handy snack option for busy soccer moms and dads in between commitments.
Unfortunately Northern Virginians that rely on these dining options have found themselves in the crosshairs of elected officials looking to levy up to a 4 percent tax on food and drinks prepared at restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, doughnut and coffee shops, and convenience stores across the county. It is taxation without justification—ill conceived, undefined and on an unnecessary fast track.
The food tax would add another layer of burden on busy families that already have enough to worry about. Family budgets that are being stretched thin with everything from higher sales and real estate taxes, higher tolls, higher insurance premiums and more.
Supervisors suggest that commuters would be the primary targets of the tax, but that just isn’t the case. With a population of 1.1 million, Fairfax County residents and families for whom eating out is often a necessity rather than a choice would bear the brunt. Sadly, low to middle income families would feel the impact of this more acutely as they are the primary consumers of prepared meals.
More puzzling is the fact that there is no current plan for how the revenue raised from a food tax would be used. While tax rates are dropping in neighboring counties, real estate and other taxes in Fairfax are on the rise so there is no need for a tax cut offset. There are no current budget cuts on the table and the county bond rating remains solid. Nevertheless, a task force has been appointed and is on a hurried timetable to study and produce a “recommendation for how revenue from a food tax should be used.” Essentially, that means the Board has not yet identified an actual need for levying a food tax, but intends to rush it through the process to approve it so it can be on the November election ballot.
The tax is a blunt instrument that singles out a single industry that employs 40,000 and is an economic engine for Fairfax County and the beltway region. Restaurants and hospitality play a vital role in Fairfax County’s economy. We are one of few industries today that offers a clear entrepreneurial career ladder—from dishwasher to line cook, from busser to server to management and someday ownership. 80 percent of restaurant owners started in an entry-level position within the restaurant industry.
As our economy continues to recover from a debilitating downturn, which closed many restaurants, our leaders need to find ways to help create a favorable business climate so we can continue to provide jobs and stimulate growth. A new tax on top of multiple other tax hikes, the high costs of health insurance changes and other regulations will stifle our ability to hire employees and remain competitive. Restaurants might choose to locate elsewhere or the many conferences and large groups that seek lodging and dining sites may migrate to Washington, D.C. or Maryland suburbs.
If Supervisors wish to study the merits of a new food tax, it would be best to review history. A Fairfax County meals tax was put to voter referendum in April 1992, but was resoundingly defeated by voters 58 percent to 42 percent. Similarly, Loudoun County held a referendum for a meals tax in November 2008 but it failed by a vote of 70 percent to 30 percent.
Put simply, the proposal put forward by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is taxation without justification. It will burden Fairfax County residents and families and dampen one bright spot in our economy. Voters have rejected it before and all indicators say there is no appetite for it today. Our elected officials can and should stop this effort in its tracks now.
Jim Wordsworth, McLean