Panel discusses meals tax

The Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce and the Chesterfield Business Council partnered to sponsor a panel discussion on the upcoming Nov. 5 referendum. The referendum will include three questions:

  1. Whether to issue $304 million in bonds to support school facility improvements, headlined by the renovation or replacement of 10 older schools and the addition of one new elementary school.
  2. Whether to issue $49 million in bonds to provide for the replacement of the county’s emergency communications system.
  3. Whether to establish a local meals tax in order to help finance the public safety and school construction improvements in the referendum.

If approved, the meals tax would be set no higher than 2 percent and would be restricted to paying for a portion of the capital costs associated with the 2013 referendum projects.

The panel discussion that took place at Chesterfield Towne Center, consisted of five panelists and three speakers. The focus was on the meals tax question on the November ballot.

James J.L. “Jay” Stegmaier informed the group of business people about the need of a new communications system (911), which is 17 years old. “The revenue collected from the 2 percent meals tax would not be used for operating funds,” Stegmaier said. “The $8 million collected annually would cost a Chesterfield County resident $1 per week. The meals tax would not be used to grow the administration but to reduce the debt service [on the bonds issued.]”

Joyce Waugh, president of the Roanoke Chamber of Commerce, said that Roanoke has had a 7 percent meals tax for some time and that the tax generates more revenue for the city than do real estate taxes. She said the Roanoke tax also has a sunset clause, meaning that at some point the tax would be eliminated.

Panelists fielded prepared questions and a few audience questions on the meals tax alone. Laura Lafayette, president of the Richmond Association of Realtors®, said people don’t buy in until they embrace the area’s quality of life and the environment in schools.

Two restaurant owners and the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, Kristian Havard, had seats on the panel.

“The biggest burden will be carried by the smallest of businesses,” Havard said. “It’s a difficult time for some businesses. The tax is not a pass through to customers and a small business could be pushed out of business.”

 Representing Citizens for Chesterfield Students, Doug Scheibe said it is the core of basic government to provide for good schools. “While our group has not made a stand on the meals tax we understand that Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) are at the bottom of the list of  ‘cost per student’in Virginia,” he said. “There has been little done to some schools in the county for 100 years.”

Leandra Dunlevy, operating partner of the Hard Shell at Bellgrade, said people want a place like Hard Shell in the county so they don’t have to drive downtown.  

“If the customers perception, [if the meals tax is approved] will be that their check will be 5 percent over what they would pay in the city, they may go downtown,” Dunlevy said. “We hope that the taxes will improve schools, but I worry that the meals tax could hurt schools.”

“One dollar a week. Everything in life requires a dollar,” Lafayette said. “If you have a stake in this county you need to be in favor of the meals tax.”

Many of the panelists seemed to weigh the implications of the tax as they answered questions, from moderator Brennen Keene on behalf of the business associations.
Lafayette tempered an earlier response. “If asked for a raise in real estate taxes, people would do it as another option to the meals tax.”

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