Sussex County meals tax now in the hands of local voters

By: Terry Harris | Email: Click Here
Posted: April 30, 2019 | 3:15 p.m.

Measure will be featured on election ballot this November

SUSSEX – The Sussex County Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 at their April 18 meeting to approve language for the ballot in the November 5 election which will place the controversial decision on whether or not to levy a tax on prepared meals in Sussex County squarely in the hands of the voters.  

The wording of the referendum is as follows: QUESTION: For the purposes of funding capital projects which further the public safety and public education needs of Sussex County and the Sussex County Public Schools, shall the  County of Sussex, Virginia be authorized to levy a tax on prepared food and beverages, otherwise known as a meals tax, in the County of Sussex, Virginia, at the rate of four percent (4%) of the amount charged for the prepared food and beverages?  

Preceding the vote by the board, Supervisor Eric Fly, who, along with Chairman  Susan Seward, opposes the tax, addressed concerns with specific points in the language as he urged that the board reconsider proposing the meal tax for Sussex County.  

Referring back to remarks he had made in previous meetings concerning Sussex County still being in deep recession and having a declining population with a county system designed to run 14,000 citizens when the actual population is 9,800, Fly said, “I guess we’ll go over this discussion one more time with the hope that we won’t pass this.”

After explaining that state records show that taxes from the three restaurants in the county declined from 2015 – 2017, he said, “We have three restaurant owners, all of whom have said that they are opposed to this tax.  Two of the owners have said, ‘If you put the meals tax in, we’re just going to close, because we’re barely making it now.’” 

“The other thing I want to point out to this board,” he said, “is that when we started this meals tax discussion back in December we really didn’t have a reason, or something we were going to tie the money to.  But the state code requires us to say that this meals tax is going to generate x number of dollars, and then you have to say what the money is going to be designated for.  So in December we really had no designation for the money.  And I’m going to tell you that in Washington we call this scenario is a Ghost Rider – a solution or bill that rides through the night trying to find a problem – and usually it’s a money grab.”  

“So in January we came back and had a discussion of the meals tax and we were told by board members that we need this – and I’ll quote – ‘We need water and sewage south of route 40 on 301.’  That’s what we were told. … because we needed this money for infrastructure in the county…  and that we specifically needed water, sewage. We even had a Service Authority Director come and explain his budget because we were told that the reason we need this tax was that the service authority had fallen so far behind and they couldn’t raise their rates fast enough to pay for this infrastructure. … In February we came back and said that the reason we needed the meals tax was once again we needed infrastructure. We needed – a quote – ‘water and sewage, south of route 40 on 301 in Stony Creek.’ That actually was tabled because Mr. Tyler asked because he needed more time to research it.  In March, we came back and a board member said ‘We need the meals tax because we need to build a new county administration building.’  Then on April 5 the board of supervisors met in a special meeting to determine whether we were going to go into a financing plan to build a new administration building along with the renovation of other buildings.  On April 5, the board voted not to move forward with the building of a new county administration building.  On April 10, we approved the school board’s budget at a budget work session and now here on Apri 18 if you read the proposed meals tax language that we have before us it states that the purpose for this mainly is the capital projects for the school system. And that’s where we are now.

“So we started out not knowing what we were going to do with the money.  And then we said it’s for infrastructure in Stony Creek.  So what’s happening?  Number one, you can’t say you’re going to tax somebody and not say what the money’s for.  That’s illegal, as our attorney can tell you. Then we came back and said we’re going to do infrastructure in Stony Creek.  Well, you’re not going to get the rest of the county to vote for that.  And honestly the infrastructure that we were talking about, that’s 3 people that it would benefit. Then we came back and said, no, we need this new tax because we’re going to build a new administration building.  Then the board decided not to move forward with the county administration building.  So obviously you can’t get citizens to vote for a project you’re not going to do.  

“This is just pure out scam politics is what we’re at.  So now, we come out and we say no, it’s not really what we said before, now it’s for the school system.  And for public safety.  Well, who’s going to go and not vote for fire and rescue and who’s not going to vote for the children?  So that’s where we’re at.  We’re trying to find a solution – now we’re looking for the problem.  So it wasn’t in infrastructure and it wasn’t in building a county administration building so now it’s for the school system and it’s for capital projects.  

“Let me read something.   Sussex County School Board’s budget that was approved by the county BOS.  On April 10.  School Capital Fund – Total request, 2015-16 – ZERO.  2016-17 – Zero.  2018-2019 – ZERO.  This year’s budget requested by the school board for capital funds – ZERO.  The resolution for meals tax says we need capital funds for the school. Yet for 6 years, the school hasn’t requested any capital funds. So what’s the tax for?  It’s a ghost rider. It’s just a money grab.  That’s all this is.  It’s unbelievable that we’re going to go down this path and even look at this!  What’s it for? The school’s not asking for money.  So why are we posing a tax? 

Immediately following Fly’s remarks, Supervisor Tyler called the question. The vote was 4-2 in favor of passing the language on to the ballot, with Supervisors Tyler, Futrell, Stringfield, and Blowe in favor and Supervisors Seward and Fly opposed.  

Vice Chairman Blowe, a proponent of the meals tax, did not speak at the April meeting.  However, he afterward shared why he originally proposed the tax.  

“First of all, virtually all the localities around us have a meal tax,” he said. “Petersburg, Waverly, Emporia, Dinwiddie, Prince George – they have them. A key difference is that on sales tax, all the money goes to the state and the state  in turn sends localities a percentage of the money back. But on meals taxes – the tax on prepared restaurant food – that’s considered a local tax and all that money stays local. …  The county needs to take advantage and try to captures forms of that revenue as well in our locality to use on improvements and any type of infrastructure or for fire, rescue, or any type of project. The more revenue we can collect in areas like that that to use the service, we don’t just always have to increase property taxes on our citizens.  And again, we are serving mostly seeking to get additional revenue from the huge volume of traffic that goes along route 95 through our county and get some of that revenue that we can collect from them to keep our taxes low in the county and help provide some needed infrastructure or emergency services.”   

Blowe said that he chose to go for a meals tax  “Because our county did not have one and we needed to take advantage of the large volume of traffic that goes through our county and does not necessarily contribute to the upkeep or infrastructure of the county…  If the citizens vote for it in November, then on all prepared meals there’d be an additional 4 % tax that the actual commercial business would collect that and pay it to the Commissioner of Revenue. Actually in the referendum we actually state what the additional revenue would be used for. We indicated school capital improvements and also capital improvements for public safety.”

“The biggest thing is, for instance, my family, we like Chick-fil-A. And where we’re traveling across the country and we see a Chick-fil-A we’re looking to stop. We’ve never once tried to look up and see if there a meal tax in town or this city before we get a Chick-fil-A sandwich if that’s what we’re looking for. And likewise, as I’ve indicated, virtually all of the localities around us are doing this and I just don’t understand why we leave revenue on the table when we could use this to help our county and then not have to raise taxes so quickly on our citizens concerning personal property. That’s very important I think, and I think it’s also very important that people who are using our facilities or stopping in our county contribute just as they do in counties and towns and cities all over the country. Again, we’re mostly wanting to capitalize and concentrate on those high volume of traffic that goes through our county each week.”

As board chair Susan Seward explained her opposition to the proposed meals tax, she referred to a number of public comments made during recent board meetings. She particularly pointed out comments by Rex Davis, of the Davis Companies out of Stony Creek. Davis has spoken at great length in opposition to the meals tax, addressing the damage that it would do to his business and his employees. 

“I feel like this tax is punishing three businesses and impacts them disproportionately – the Davis family businesses, especially,” Seward said. “They have a number of restaurants and have done a huge amount of good for Sussex County.  The Davises already pay over $400,000 a year in taxes.  In addition to the concerns with the Davises, Cowling’s BBQ is in my district, and I have spoken at length with them.  They do not want this meals tax, and I listen.  I’m not going to support levying a tax that is only going to hit one business in my district.” 

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