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Richmond City Council Votes 7-2 to Increase Meals Tax

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service
 
RICHMOND -- Richmond restaurant, fast food and movie theater customers will pay an extra 1.5 percent with their food starting in July, following the City Council's decision to raise the meals tax to help fund school construction and improvement.
 
Over the course of a five-hour meeting, the council voted 7-2 Monday to approve increasing the local meals tax from 6 percent to 7.5 percent.  Combined with the sales tax, this will bring the total tax on a restaurant check to 12.8 percent.
 
Tessa McKenzie, one of the citizens who supported the increase, called its passage "one step in a larger solution towards a more equitable system" for Richmond's public schools.
 
“This seems like a great, low-hanging fruit to really galvanize excellent movement for our students,” said McKenzie, who works for Bridging Richmond, a group that advocates for improvements in education and workforce development.
 
Councilman Parker Agelasto, 5th District, voted for the tax increase but expressed concerns.  He promised greater scrutiny of financial issues as the council drafts the next city budget.
 
“Million-and-a-half subsidies for Main Street Station? Gone!” Agelasto said.  “The Redskins training camp?  They want to renegotiate and renew this by July 1?  Well, you know what, Redskins? Go!”
 
The action capped a contentious evening, one set in place after Mayor Levar Stoney rallied his City Council allies to push for the vote last week.  Stoney has said that the increase will raise $9 million a year, eventually allowing the city to borrow $150 million for the construction and improvement of Richmond's public schools over the next five years.
 
While council deliberation over the vote was long and passionate, the loudest voices came from Richmond residents who spoke.  Comments supporting and opposing the tax increase extended well past the 30-minute limit allowed for both. They represented a diverse mix of citizens, including parents, movie theater owners, restaurant managers, teachers and students.  The latter two made up a significant part of the comments urging passage of the tax increase.
 
Thomas Jefferson High School student Alexis Gresham said that the higher tax would help her younger sister’s school environment without straining the family’s budget.
 
“As an RPS student, I can’t wait,” Gresham said. “Please vote for the meals tax.”
 
Opponents of the tax increase offered several reasons, including a lack of trust in the council and School Board. Some said the tax hike represented "economic discrimination" against restaurants and movie theaters. A few even felt the increase didn't go far enough and would only succeed in keeping the public schools "afloat" in their current state.
 
“I’m for the schools,” said Jason Thrasher, owner and operator of The Local Eatery and Pub.  “If this doesn’t go into effect until July 1st, why can’t you take another 30 days to sit down, plan it out, map it out and give the city and its citizens and taxpayers a way to see that you’re actually going to use the money for its purpose?”
 
Councilwoman Kristen Larson, 4th District, objected to what she saw as a lack of transparency and accountability expected of a body that served "as a check and balance to the mayor."  
 
"If we don't honor the duty given to us by the voters and the Virginia Constitution, we have no purpose in this process," Larson said.
 
Larson and Councilwoman Kim Gray, 2nd District, voted against raising the meals tax.
 
Earlier in the meeting, Larson called for a delay to the vote; her request was rejected 8-1.  A second attempted delay was made by Agelasto and was rejected 5-4.
 
Several opponents of the tax increase cited legislation approved earlier Monday by the Virginia Senate as part of their objections.
 
Senate Bill 750 would require Stoney to present to the council by Jan. 1, 2019, a plan “to modernize the city's K-12 educational infrastructure consistent with national standards” without raising taxes -- or else the mayor must “inform city council such a plan is not feasible.”
 
The bill was introduced by Republican Sen. Glen Sturtevant, a former member of the Richmond School Board. It passed the Senate 40-0 and now goes to the House of Delegates for consideration.

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