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Late-night vote ends meals tax idea in Fairfax for now

Consider the idea for a new election for a meals tax in Fairfax County dead. For now.

Late Monday night, Fairfax County supervisors voted 7-3 against scheduling a special election in March on a meals tax -- a controversial surcharge on all meals eaten at county restaurants. The vote capped off a frantic political fight in a county largely unused to such back-room wheeling and dealing.

It all started Monday afternoon when Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said a meals tax was not being discussed by officials, despite a Washington Post report that suggested otherwise.

"I know it's something Supervisor [Gerald] Hyland wants," Bulova said. "But no one has made a motion and it's not being discussed. It's not something this board is entertaining."

Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), the lead advocate for the tax, appeared particularly perturbed. At one point, he visibly rolled his eyes as Bulova spoke. Then he went to work.

Within an hour, Hyland had begun circulating his prepared comments on the tax idea and a resolution proposing a special countywide March 16 vote on the tax.

Hours passed, and Hyland waited and wooed colleagues. At about 9:30 p.m., Hyland -- the last supervisor to give his routine public comments -- proposed the special March vote. The time was now, he said. If supervisors waited -- even a week -- a meals tax wouldn't be ready for a March election date and, thus, next year's budget cycle, which is finalized in the spring.

Given the county's looming $316 million budget shortfall, the extra $80 million generated from the tax for school projects could come in handy, he said.

"The schools are facing an especially difficult time as they seek to continue to provide a high-quality education with diminishing revenues and increasing requirements," Hyland said.

Meals taxes are usually tough tests of public sentiment -- and of political will.

The last time Fairfax County considered a meals tax was 1992, when the county was in a similar budget situation. Facing millions of dollars in needed budget cuts, the county asked voters to consider a 4 percent tax on sit-down meals, takeout fast food and pizza delivery to help stave off hundreds of employee layoffs and funding problems at county schools, libraries and parks.

But voters soundly voted the tax down, saying they would rather get fewer services than pay higher taxes. The single-issue special election attracted a surprisingly high 24 percent voter turnout and, at the time, the vote was seen as a resounding defeat.

Neighboring Loudoun County, too, has tried three times to pass a meals tax, with no luck. In 1992, it failed 4-to-1. In 1998, it lost 3-to-1. Last year, the ballot question specified that revenue from the tax would be used only for school construction, but the proposal was defeated once more, by a margin of more than 2-to-1.

The District, the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park and the towns of Herndon, Leesburg and Vienna all have meals taxes. Arlington County is the only Northern Virginia county to have a meals tax; It is one of five Virginia counties that does not need voter approval for such a tax. Cities and towns also don't require a vote.

Scheduling special elections usually requires hours of committee meetings, public input and discussions with stakeholders, interest groups and lobbyists. But after an exhausting 12-hour Fairfax Board of Supervisors meeting, the vote would come down to the weary 10-member elected board.

Hyland was joined by two ardent supporters -- supervisors Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) and John W. Foust (D-Dranesville) -- and three supervisors who were on the fence -- Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) and Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence).

Hudgins said supervisors would be "shirking our responsibility" if they didn't approve the election. Foust was equally supportive.

The only vocal opponent was Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), a limited-government conservative who opined that "real people" would be putting up the $80 million, not the budget "tooth fairy."

County attorneys said it was unlikely a vote on a meals tax would make it for a March vote -- or anytime this spring for that matter -- unless the full board took action at Monday's meeting. Months of planning and regulatory approvals are needed for special elections and, ironically, the board's decision to change its bimonthly meeting dates from Mondays to Tuesdays in 2010 only further complicated things (elections must be held on Tuesdays).

Faced with a quick deadline and no other options, Bulova said the March vote had been "brought up too abruptly" and that she wouldn't support it. Gross, McKay and Smyth said they too needed more time to discuss the idea. And thus the meals tax was dead for this year.

After the vote at about 9:45 p.m. Monday, Hyland said he didn't expect the vote to pass, saying the votes weren't there. Still, with six to seven supervisors expressing at least some interest in bringing the meals tax to voters, don't expect the issue to be off the table forever, especially if the county's worsening budget picture continues to darken.

By Derek Kravitz  |  December 8, 2009; 12:50 PM ET
Categories:  Fairfax County Board of Supervisors  
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I suppose a limited-time-only meals tax would be okay, say for 3 years, at which point the voters need to re-approve it. Times are tough for the county, and though I'm not a big fan of a meal tax, I understand the need.

Posted by: HarryZ | December 8, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

There is, obviously, no political will in this body. I believe that the Board of Supervisors is becoming just like the school board, ineffectual and irrelevant.

Posted by: mortified469 | December 8, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

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