Local News

Durham ballot will decide controversial food tax

Posted November 3, 2008 6:48 p.m. EST
Updated November 3, 2008 8:57 p.m. EST

— Durham County voters will decide Tuesday on a proposed 1 percent meal tax that proponents say would mostly be used to fund cultural and recreational projects.

County and city leaders have worked for the better part of two decades for the tax, which would be applied to restaurant meals and prepared food at grocery stores. It could raise between $5 million and $7 million a year, officials estimate, with the average person paying a minimum of approximately $20 a year.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the citizens of Durham," said Robb Teer, co-chairman of the Prepared Food Tax Steering Committee.

Teer says that raising the same amount via property taxes would mean an additional $300 more a year on a $150,000 home.

Rejecting the referendum, supporters say, could cost taxpayers more when they fund future projects.

Opponents of the proposal say such a tax is poor timing in an already-struggling economy.

Paul Stone, with the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, says it is not fair for restaurant customers to bear the tax alone. He rejects the idea that people have a choice to eat at home if they are trying to save money.

"If it is something that is going to help the community, why is only one part of the business community paying for it?" he said. "Eating out is part of the fabric of America."

There is also controversy about who is helping tax opponents.

The Durham Citizens Against the Food Tax, organized by Dallas Woodhouse, the director of the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity in Wake County, has organized the opposition with some residents and the Restaurant and Lodging Association.

"I think it is unfair that somebody out of town is fighting this tax in Durham," Teer said.

"Our members in Durham want us to fight this, so that's who we're working for," Stone said.

Similar taxes have benefited other areas in the Triangle.

In Wake County, a food and beverage tax collected more than $16 million last year, helping to fund projects such as the RBC Center.

Hillsborough, Charlotte and Fayetteville have similar taxes.