This is an op-ed by Pat Hynes, Fairfax County Public Schools Board member representing the Hunter Mill District. She is speaking for herself and not the entire school board in this post, which also does not represent the opinion of Reston Now.
If you’ve ever participated in a “Dining for Dollars” event for your local school, you know how important the relationships between school PTAs and neighborhood restaurants are.
That’s why when the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors recently voted to put a meals tax referendum on the November ballot, they were careful to signal that some of the revenue — about $3 million annually — would go back to restaurants to pay the costs of collecting the tax. As we diversify and stabilize our community’s revenue base for important needs like the school system, local businesses must be supported as well.
Counties in Virginia have very little flexibility or authority when it comes to generating revenue, and a meals tax is one of those few options.
Nearly every surrounding jurisdiction currently uses a meals tax to help diversify its revenue base, including the Towns of Vienna and Herndon, Fairfax City, Falls Church, Arlington and Alexandria. The revenue from the proposed 4-percent Fairfax County meals tax is estimated to bring in almost $100 million to the County’s annual operating budget. After approximately $3 million of that annual revenue goes back to restaurants to pay their costs, 70 percent of the remaining revenue would go to the schools.
After almost 10 years of austerity, FCPS is spending $1,000 less per child, in real dollars, than in 2009. Those savings have come from years of frozen teacher pay, class size increases and deep cuts in administration. Thanks to our county and state funders, fiscal year 2017 is looking brighter, with an increase in funding that will allow us to lower elementary class size caps and push FCPS teacher pay halfway to the regional market average.
Full recovery for the school system will require at least a few more years of sustained reinvestment, however, and annual property tax increases cannot be the answer. The annual boost from a meals tax would provide that marginal difference we need to continue investing in our teachers and our kids as we recover, without going back to homeowners for higher property taxes every year.
Stabilizing the county’s revenue base with a meals tax helps not only the schools, of course. Fairfax County is a great place to live because of all the important public services we rely on. Police and firefighters keep us safe, accessible parks and recreation facilities keep us healthy, libraries are important centers of community life, and human services support all of us throughout the stages of our lives. A stronger revenue base would help make all of this possible and provide some relief to property owners.
For restaurant owners and workers who are worried about what a meals tax might mean for them, I encourage them to look at our neighboring jurisdictions that have had a meals tax for many years. Every time I drive through the Town of Vienna, for example, a new restaurant has opened up and very few ever seem to close. The experience in surrounding jurisdictions is that restaurants continue to thrive, along with those great partnerships between neighborhood eateries and neighborhood schools. When we all do our part for kids, everyone wins.
The Nov. 8 meals tax referendum will be an important opportunity for the community to weigh in on our priorities. Vote YES to the meals tax!
Hunter Mill representative on the Fairfax County School Board
Photo: Pat Hynes/file photo