Richmond City Council met Monday night to discuss a proposed bump to the city’s meals tax. The Mayor is calling for the tax increase as a way to raise money for Richmond’s crumbling schools and local restaurant owners are pushing back.
Richmond, though, isn’t the first locality in Virginia to turn to the meals tax for education.
It was 2010 and the economy was recovering from the recession. The state legislature had made major cuts to public education, and Roanoke city schools were struggling.
“Purchasing books and materials, just basic things,” said Roanoke City Communications Director Melinda Mayo.
Mayo remembered the city was considering canceling a summer school program and a reading camp, things they couldn’t fund unless they raised money quickly.
To fix the problem, Roanoke City Council decided to increase the meals tax on a short term basis, two percent for two years. Many restaurant owners were against the idea, but the tax still passed.
“It was very contentious, there were a lot of emotions at the table,” recalled Thomas Becher, who had represented restaurant owners during the debate.
After the tax passed, Becher got together with then-city manager Chris Morrill and they started brainstorming ways to put a positive spin on things.
“This idea was really cooked up, pardon the pun, to overcome those issues and that tension,” said Becher.
Their idea was a PR campaign, for a tax.
They reached back out to local restaurants and said “We want to help drive traffic to your business.”
“Some were really fed up with it, honestly, and didn’t want anything to do with it,” Becher said. “Others said ‘Hey it’s a great idea, because I’ve got nothing to lose.’ And it was truly no cost to them.”
Becher’s PR business did some pro bono work, and the city chipped in. The hospitality association and chamber of commerce came on board.
Participating restaurants put out a sign with the logo of a fork holding up a couple of books and the slogan “Eat for Education.” Diners could say they were coming out to support schools, and they’d get entered into a monthly drawing for a gift card at a participating restaurant. The city paid for the gift cards.
Restaurants would also host special evenings, where teachers and educators would come speak.
“It was a cause that said ‘You know the city schools need us. Why don’t we go out to dinner and help this restaurant and help the schools, and help the city with the revenue tax increase.’,” said Becher.
Melinda Mayo remembers even City Council got on board. To kick off the tax increase, all the council members went out to eat.
“They went to three different restaurants, they went appetizers at one, the main course at another, the dessert at another,” Mayo said. “People saw that council was behind it. That they were supporting restaurants and schools.”
Mayo admitted there were downsides. It was a lot of work, and the city had to spend some money on PR. But in the end, she said, it was successful. The city raised more than $9 million over the course of two years -- more than they expected.
Diane Elliot owns Local Roots, a farm to table eatery in Roanoke. Elliot didn’t love that the city was targeting restaurants, but she was willing to contribute. What helped most in getting her on board was that the increase wasn’t permanent.
“It wasn’t going to be forever. So it had a beginning, a middle, and an end to it,” said Elliot.
Still, Elliot wondered if the city could have found savings elsewhere in the budget. And she doesn’t remember what the result of all the effort was.
“I would like to know what the end result was. And I think it would be good to really know who is doing the oversight and to have the people who are in charge, to report to those they’re taxing,” suggested Elliot.
Richmond’s Mayor Levar Stoney is pushing Richmond City Council to vote on its own meals tax increase next week.