The presidential race at top of the ballot is attracting the most attention, but a pressing issue at the bottom of the ballot is eliciting sharp opinions from Durham County voters.
This fall, the prepared foods tax, also known as the meals tax, is up for a public vote. If passed, a 1 percent tax—one penny for every dollar spent—would be placed on prepared foods. This includes grocery deli items and restaurant and fast-food meals. It does not include meals at campus dining halls.
The estimated $5 million in annual revenue would go toward dozens of cultural, recreation, beautification and workforce development projects, many of which have been back-burnered for years. These include an expansion of the Hayti Heritage Center, a rehab of the Durham Civic Center, and the Parrish Street museum that would celebrate the city's historic "Black Wall Street." The money would help fund the creation and maintenance of trails, including at West Point on the Eno and New Hope Preserve. Some funding would also be allocated for job training programs in the hospitality industry at Durham Technical Community College and N.C. Central University.
While this is a difficult time to levy another tax—some would say there is no good time to do so—1 percent is a small price to pay for much-needed cultural and recreational amenities that would add to residents' quality of life. We recommend a vote FOR the 1 percent prepared foods tax.
Let's say lunch at McDonald's comes to $5, without any taxes. There is a 6.75 percent sales tax on that amount—34 cents. Add the 1 percent—five cents—for the prepared meals tax, and the total is $5.39. Without the prepared meals tax it would have been $5.34.
Proponents estimate 60 percent of the tax burden would be borne by commuters and visitors. And the tax is not unprecedented: Wake County and the Town of Hillsborough already have a prepared meals tax, passed by their respective elected officials, not by voters.
In those areas, we've heard from opponents who acknowledge the levy has had no effect on business: neither good, from an increase in tourism because of marketing dollars generated by the tax, or bad, because of the small increase to their customers' tab. However, restaurant owners are rightfully concerned about any addition to their rising food costs.
We do not agree with the argument that the tax unfairly burdens low-income families. More punitive would be a property tax hike, which is almost certain, but it could be even higher if Durham relies on that levy to pay not only for some of these projects, but also for other necessities such as schools, sewer service and transportation. A property tax hike is more pervasive than a meals tax: It not only hurts property owners (including restaurateurs) at a particularly vulnerable time, but also renters, who will bear some of the burden as the expense is passed on to them.
There are social justice benefits to the meals tax: For example, the proposed Pearsontown Trail would run from N.C. Central to Hayti; that area has no urban trails and has been all but forgotten. Many of the proposed amenities, especially the recreational projects, are free and can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of income.
Successful, vibrant cities not only have business, industry and higher education, but also an excellent quality of life. Culture and recreation are part of that: Arts and music can inspire everyone and should not be the domain of the privileged. Nature trails and open space should not be reserved for only the wealthy neighborhoods; they belong in the inner city as well.
This brings us to our final points: If voters pass the tax, it is essential that the cultural and recreational amenities remain affordable; many of them should be free. Secondly, it is essential that Durham citizens have oversight and input on the funding. If we are to trust our elected officials with this money, it is incumbent on them to allocate it fairly, without political pressure from the well-connected, so that these projects—and their promise—benefit all of Durham.