City Council OKs budget with meals tax hike, sanitation fee

Posted: June 11, 2014

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — City Council approved a budget for fiscal year 2015 Tuesday night that includes record amounts for general government and school operations.

But the councilors nearly chopped $600,000 from the spending plan at the last minute as one of the tax increases necessary to provide the funding required to pay those bills narrowly was approved.

But after the tax rates were set, the councilors unanimously approved a budget that calls for a total of $209,779,268 to be spent across all funds.

That total includes record-high spending totals of $82.2 million for the general fund, which covers many government operational costs, and $27.7 million for school operations.

To provide the revenue to support the spending plan, the councilors:

Voted unanimously to increase the vehicle license fee to $25 from $24.

Voted unanimously to raise the lodging tax to 6 percent from 5 percent.

Voted unanimously to create a sanitation fee and establish it at $5 a month, to be billed bimonthly with water and sewer bills.

Voted 8-1 to hike the per-pack tax on cigarettes to 35 cents from 25 cents.

Voted 5-4 to increase the tax on prepared foods to 6 percent from 5 percent.

The meals tax increase, which is projected to provide an extra $1.2 million in revenue for the fiscal year that begins July 1, had generated considerable discussion in work sessions at which the budget was honed.

Council President John Willingham made the most substantive statement about it Tuesday, saying he supported a half-percent increase but not a full percentage point.

He was joined by Mayor Elizabeth Minor and councilors John Hill and Corey Sullivan in voting against the increase.

No citizens spoke about the budget during the public hearing before its passage, and only two people opposed the tax and fee hikes.

The most adamant opponent was Paul Whittemore, owner of the Winchester News Stand at 30 E. Piccadilly St. As he had in 2010 when the tariff was raised to 25 cents a pack from 10 cents, he told the councilors that hiking the cigarette tax was bad for his business.

“My customers tell me they’re going to [Frederick County],” he said. “They can buy a carton of cigarettes $2.50 cheaper just three-quarters of a mile away.”

Whittemore said there’s a link between cigarette sales and lottery-ticket sales, and he said he’d provided the councilors with data to show that his lottery ticket business has fallen considerably in recent years.

Because lottery proceeds are funneled to local education coffers, he said more than $61,000 that would have gone to Winchester Public Schools has been lost at his store alone.

“I had a $15,000 loss in my store last year,” Whittemore said. “If this proposal goes through, I’ll have no choice but to say, ‘See you later, councilors, I’m out of business.’”

Only Willingham voted against increasing the tax.

The establishment of the sanitation fee — which will recover only part of the cost of picking up garbage, recycling and yard waste — also was questioned by Fairmont Avenue resident Arthur Christjohn. He called the fee “excessive for me” and asked why his real estate taxes shouldn’t cover the cost of refuse collection.

The councilors also unanimously approved two measures related to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Winchester, Frederick and Clarke Counties.

They endorsed a conditional-use permit to allow a recently purchased building to be used as the SPCA’s adoption shelter, then provided a tax exemption for that property. However, a second building the SPCA owns and leases out was not granted an exemption because it isn’t used for the nonprofit organization’s activities.

The panel also nominated Lauren Hawley as a Third Ward representative on the Winchester School Board.

Attending the meeting at Rouss City Hall were President John Willingham, Mayor Elizabeth Minor, Vice President Milt McInturff, Vice-Mayor Les Veach and councilors Jeffrey Buettner, Evan Clark, John Hill, Corey Sullivan and John Tagnesi.

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com