City Meals Tax Under Microscope At Forum
Council Candidates Differ On Keeping Recent Increase
By Preston Knight | Daily News-Record | September 19, 2012
Stephen Mitchell / DN-R
LEFT TO RIGHT: City Council candidates Christine Johnson, Roger Baker, Richard Baugh, Anthony Bailey, Deb Fitzgerald, Abe Shearer, Kai Degner and Rodney Eagle introduce themselves at the beginning of a forum at James Madison University’s Memorial Hall on Monday night.intentions” and that unfunded mandates from the state left them with little choice but to approve it.
HARRISONBURG— The most discussed budget decision for City Council earlier this year is also one of the issues dividing candidates looking to be elected to the panel.
The eight people jockeying for three spots on council in the Nov. 6 election participated in a public forum Monday night.
Since the Downtown Dining Alliance was one of the event sponsors, candidates were asked whether the much-debated increase in the city’s meals tax should be rolled back.
Council voted to raise its meals tax from 6 percent to 6.5 percent as a way to close a funding gap for fiscal 2013, which began July 1. Harrisonburg has the secondhighest meals tax in the region, and business owners strongly opposed the increase during the budget process.
Councilman Kai Degner, one of the candidates on November’s ballot, voted against the increase. At the forum, he said his four colleagues on council voted for the hike with “good intentions” and that unfunded mandates from the state left them with little choice but to approve it.
But Harrisonburg’s downtown is strong because of its restaurants, Degner said, and questioned whether the meals tax should have been raised while the real estate tax rate remains low. Although the council raised the real estate tax from 59 cents per $100 of assessed value to 63 cents, Harrisonburg still has the second-lowest property tax rate among Virginia municipalities, behind only Williamsburg.
Mayor Richard Baugh, who also is seeking re-election, voted for the meals tax increase. He said it was too soon to talk of a rollback, but added that if the city were “raking in cash,” he would recommend rescinding the adjustment.
Baugh was adamant that another candidate’s suggestion to earmark the additional meals tax revenue for tourism would be a move toward a “troubling path.”
“We should not start doing carve-outs for particular groups,” he said.
Former Mayor Rodney Eagle suggested the earmark, while also saying he would favor rolling back the tax hike. Candidates Abe Shearer and Roger Baker also said they would scale back the increase.
Baker, a former city manager, criticized the council for raising taxes despite a revenue surplus in fiscal 2012.
“Council should have done a little more homework,” he said. “[A surplus] is easy to determine.”
The revenue surplus for fiscal 2012 was about $1 million. The figure accounts for how much actual revenues exceeded budgeted revenues, according to Larry Propst, the city’s finance director.
Candidates Deb Fitzgerald and Anthony Bailey agreed with Baugh, stating that it was too early to tell if the tax increase was the correct decision and that earmarking made them uncomfortable. If taxes must be raised in the future, restaurant owners should not be the group “burdened” by another increase, Bailey said.
The eighth candidate, Christine Johnson, noted that the council “obviously saw [the increase] needed to be done.” As owner of University Outpost, she said she wants to hear that the city plans to help bring her more customers when it raises taxes that could affect her business.
Range Of Experience
The candidate pool offers diverse backgrounds for voters, and that was on display as the hopefuls spoke during Monday’s forum. Baugh, Degner and Fitzgerald — all Democrats — are the only ones currently in decision-making positions for the city.
Baugh, an attorney with the firm of Hoover Penrod PLC, and Degner, a real estate agent with Kline May Realty, were elected to their first four-year terms on council in 2008. Fitzgerald, an associate professor of economics at Blue Ridge Community College, is a member of the Harrisonburg Planning Commission. She mentioned that she has twice worked on updating the city’s comprehensive plan.
The Republican ticket consists of Eagle, Johnson and Bailey, while Shearer and Baker are independents.
Eagle, Baker and Bailey tout their experience serving the community. Bailey is the senior commonwealth’s attorney for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County and says he’s prepared to serve in a “broader capacity.”
Eagle was first elected in 1996 and re-elected in 2004. In 2008, he lost a re-election attempt running as an independent. Owner of Eagle Carpet, he was born in Harrisonburg in 1936 and has lived in the city his entire life.
Baker was city manager from 2001 to 2007, when he retired. He also ran as an independent and lost in 2008.
Shearer, a teacher at Skyline Middle School, said he was running to be a voice for his generation. At 24, he is the youngest candidate.
Shearer partly has built his campaign around proposing more pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure for the city. That would include sidewalks on Country Club Road leading to Skyline, he said.
The city has a bike-andpedestrian plan that Baker presented to City Council during his tenure as city manager.
Johnson said her background in small business gives her a unique perspective to bring to council.
A second forum is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 2 at James Madison University’s Memorial Hall on South High Street.
Contact Preston Knight at 574 6-272 or email@example.com