Feeding schools’ budget

City Council approves 1.5% meals tax hike for schools construction

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 2/16/2018, 3:01 p.m.
On July 1, people dining out in Richmond will pay an extra 1.5 percent in tax on their prepared meals. ...

The mayor promoted the meals tax increase as the only option for increasing city revenue and also said the city functionally had used up its ability to borrow through 2023. He also has yet to offer plans to reduce city spending to free up additional funds for schools construction.

His 2018-19 city budget is due for release March 6, but any cuts would need to be used to help fund City Council’s already designated top priority — improving salaries for police officers and firefighters, which is expected to cost at least $12 million.

Based on the facilities plan the School Board approved in December, council members believe at least $120 million of the money to be raised by the meals tax hike would be used to build replacements for Greene and George Mason elementary schools and to provide a new Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School.

The remaining $30 million also could stretch to build a new Woodville Elementary and possibly fund renovation of Francis and Fairfield elementary schools.

With only $150 million — more than $30 million less than former Mayor Dwight C. Jones invested to develop four new schools during his tenure — the city and School Board would be hard-pressed to include the projected $80 million needed to build a replacement for increasingly overcrowded George Wythe High.

The worry for many is that the limited new funding virtually ensures that at least 30 other buildings in equally poor shape as those to be replaced would continue to go downhill.

Supporters of the meals tax acknowledged the city must up come with far more money to get the job done.

In the packed council chambers Monday night, people held up signs with the message “Vote Yes and Find the Rest.”

New city schools Superintendent Jason Kamras also made that point as he endorsed the meals tax increase, while pointedly telling the council he expects them to provide more money for construction.

He posted a photo of a bathroom at Binford Middle on Facebook to tout the need for the new money, even though Binford is far down the list of schools to receive any of the funding from the meals tax.

Speakers such as former Armstrong High sports Coach Roderyck Bullock and Lola McDowell, former Richmond Education Association president, pounded the same theme.

“Leaking toilets, bad plumbing, falling or missing tiles and mold in the walls” are among the problems the schools face, Mrs. McDowell said. “I wouldn’t want any child of mine to attend a school in that condition.”

Equally passionate foes called the increase in the meals tax a threat to the financial strength of the food, beverage and entertainment establishments that collect most of the meals tax revenue for the city.

They argued that the mayor’s plan targets them and requires no sacrifice from anyone else.

“It’s a burden for the restaurant industry that hasn’t been talked about,” a representative of the travel and hospital trade group said, pointing to the $1.3 million in credit card fees that restaurants must absorb to collect the tax from customers.