Last city meals tax hike was fiscal musical chairs. Do it again?

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RICHMOND, Va. -- The last time Richmond raised its meals tax, if you’ll recall, was in 2003 to build our new performing arts center.

The city needed almost $3 million a year to cover the debt service on their $20 million share of the $120 million complex, which wound up being vastly scaled down. The meals tax did its job.

Then came the Wilder administration, which wrapped the meals tax into its City of the Future plan, which was built around a $250 million package for new schools and libraries - schools that we saw being built during Mayor Dwight Jones’ administration.

The original one percent meals tax was modified a third time to include economic development, which is where the city found part of its share of the bill for the Redskins Training camp facility.

It’s true the original meals tax deal had a sunset date - it was to be eliminated after the performing arts center was paid off. But that deal shifted with the City of the Future plan and the extra meals tax continued for 15 years and counting.

Now Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney wants to raise the meals tax another 1.5 percent - to 7.5 percent - to raise $9 million a year to repair city schools and perhaps build some. That would pay the debt service on an extra $150 million dollars. That adds up to two new schools. (Roughly $40 million for an elementary, $60 million for a middle school and $80 million for a high school.)

As you can imagine, some restaurant owners are saying why us - again? After all, the last episode of the meals tax turned into a permanent episode of fiscal musical chairs.

And why can’t city government find a way to cut, let’s say, just 3 percent of its roughly $1 billion a year budget?

That’s $30 million dollars, enough to service debt on five new schools.

Former city auditor Umesh Dalal identified up to five percent - $50 million - in waste and other cuts that could be trimmed from the annual budget.

But looking for those savings aren’t a priority for the current administration, which is one of the reasons Dalal got bought out and pushed back to Texas.

Stoney says trimming won’t get the job done.

Why not try?

I totally agree with the restaurant owners who say, show us what you’re doing with the extra money we’re already giving you.

Mayor Stoney, you can find 1.5 percent in cuts to city government, which will equal or better your proposed meals tax hike and pay the debt service on your paltry $150 million for new schools or repairs.

Better yet, find that three percent in cuts - just three percent! - and build twice as many schools.

Then maybe we’ll talk about one industry - and their customers - taking another big hit along with another unceasing round of fiscal musical chairs.

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