Note from Dan: While on vacation with the family, I’m treating you to some columns that ran in the past year. The on appeared Nov. 22, 2011. Since the, the 2-cent surtax on meals in Roanoke has expired and the tax is back to 5 percent. Salem’s remains in effect for the forseeable future.
The wise solons of the small city to our west — Salem — are poised to enact a 2 cents per dollar increase in the meals tax later this month.
This will boost the cost of the best burger in the Roanoke Valley (my opinion) by a whopping 18 cents. That’s the “Black and Blue burger” at Mac and Bob’s Restaurant on Main Street.
Today, we should take note of the hue and cry that’s not occurring.
Salem’s restaurateurs are not appearing at tea party rallies, threatening to move their operations to Roanoke County, or otherwise slamming Salem City Council. There are a couple of reasons why.
One was offered by Bob Rotanz, the owner of Mac and Bob’s. It has to do with the way Salem will spend the extra revenue.
Initially, the increase will cover the debt service on bonds the city is selling to build a new South Salem Elementary.
After that’s paid off, the extra revenue will go into a fund for other bricks-and-mortar schools projects.
Rotanz’s three children have gone through the system. And he knows the needs that are there.
“If they keep it where the 2 percent goes to capital projects, rather than the general fund, I don’t have a problem,” he told me.
Another reason it seems easier to swallow probably stems from Roanoke’s experience in raising the meals tax by two pennies per dollar in 2010.
Certain rabblers that action aroused slammed it as a business-killing affront and a 40-percent tax increase (from 5 cents per dollar to 7 cents).
People will dine outside Roanoke! they cried. Restaurants will leave the city! they warned.
That didn’t happen.
It raised the cost of a big burger at Hardees by a dime, and a large pizza at Dominos by 20 cents. At fine dining establishments, a $100 tab went up two bucks. Restaurant patrons hardly noticed.
In July, August and September of 2011, the meals tax brought in $294,700 more than it did in the same three months of 2010, the first quarter the increase was in effect.
Run those numbers and you’ll realize diners spent $4.2 million more in Roanoke restaurants in the third quarter of 2011 than in the same period of 2010.
In other words, business went up. So Salem knows a similar increase won’t kill its eateries.
We should add a big fat asterisk to those Roanoke meals tax revenue figures, because the city council unwisely adopted the 2-cent surtax for a mere two years. It expires June 30, 2012, and the council has shown little stomach to extend it. Next year is an election year.
The surtax’s expiration will cost the schools about $4.6 million each year, beginning July 1.
So far, the only person brave enough to suggest the city extend it has been Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke chapter of the NAACP.
On Nov. 7, she asked the council to re-enact the tax increase at a lower level, 1.5 cents per dollar, for two more years.
A nurse by training, Hale likened such a change to a doctor weaning a patient off medication.
Meanwhile, it would save such programs as summer school, and help Roanoke schools preserve the gains in graduation rates and standardized test scores it has made in recent years, Hale told me Monday.
So far, her proposal seems to have gone over like a lead balloon.
Here’s a thought, though:
Roanoke showed Salem the way to a tax increase the latter city is now eying as permanent.
Perhaps Salem can return the favor to Roanoke.
If the Roanoke City Council allowed the meal tax to “expire,” then enacted another one and dedicated that money to capital projects, city schools could avoid the big budget hit that’s coming July 1.
Money they’re now paying for debt service now could be reprogrammed to operations.
Some voters would no doubt perceive the move as council dodging its “two-years-only” promise.
But there’s a budget-walloping freight train bearing down on the school system right now. Is it better to lay off more teachers, and close more schools?
When Salem is imitating Roanoke, you know we’re on the right track.
We should imitate them right back.