Cigarettes and Equity

Pro-meal tax speakers line up at City Council for the February 12th public hearing (photo: Garet Prior) 

Pro-meal tax speakers line up at City Council for the February 12th public hearing (photo: Garet Prior) 

Meals tax for schools

On the morning of Tuesday, February 13th, Richmonders woke up with $150 million to address emergency school facilities needs. At a minimum, this will pay for a new Greene Elementary, Elkhardt Middle, and Mason Elementary.

How we got there was messy, to say the least. To relive five hours of public discourse, awkward discussion on Roberts Rules, and an anti-fluoride rant, rewatch the entire thing here!

My two highlights:

1. Councilman Jones and Agelasto’s “strong side, left side” moment (4:10:50). This could be a pivotal partnership leading into budget season as Agelasto’s past attempts to propose funding solutions or cuts, although principled, lacked support.

2. Jenny Aghomo, Cary Elementary parent and Richmond Forward contributor, challenged the room (3:01:50) by asking for an increase of MORE than 1.5%. Maybe even 4-5%, plus raising real estate and other taxes!

What led her to this solution was this simple question, “Why are Richmond children not deserving of the same benefits children attending county schools?”

Her comments received a few jeers and laughs, because I think she hit on the uneasy question for all of us, what sacrifice will be required to achieve an equitable outcome for city students?

Her comments articulated thoughts I’ve been reflecting upon about civil rights history. In Richmond’s history, 8 of 43 schools have been constructed post-intentional segregation. As east end organizer Art Burton stated, our current system of unequal outputs between the city and county is working exactly as its designers (Jim Crow, Harry Byrd Sr., etc.) intended it to be.

To break the wheel set in place by white supremacy, it's going to be a messy and we will bear the brunt of sacrifice. In a PERFECT world, culpable institutions of the state, region, and big business would help, but we cannot wait. 

If our students, parents, teachers, and staff are making the daily sacrifice to attend these crumbling facilities, we must ask for our share of the burden. We must fight tooth-and-nail for every new dollar through non-essential service cuts or raising taxes on those of us with economic means. Anything short in this fight will leave us with the unacceptable status quo, that perpetuates the dreams of our white supremacist forbearers.   

Cigarette tax for schools, a start

The fight for every dollar continues this week with a proposed cigarette tax.

Councilman Agelasto introduced ORD2018-031, which would levy a $0.04 tax per cigarette ($0.80 per pack) to raise approximately $5 million annually for school facilities.

For background on the cigarette tax, you can check out our analysis from last budget season.

Negatives of this tax include its regressive nature as lower income residents are more likely to buy cigarettes, and the impact to convenience stores in close proximity to county boundaries.

Positives include the fact that taxation decreases the number of smokers, thus improving community health, and this is a revenue tool commonly used by almost every other Virginia city.

What does this mean for school facilities?

There’s debate whether $5 million could leverage loans like meals, but if it could, that's approximately $80 million. This would fully fund the initial phase of the facilities plan (George Wythe High School and Woodville Elementary). 

If not loans, this money could be used to address the backlog of facilities maintenance needs. Historically, Richmond government budgeted $500,000,  which equated to $0.10 per square foot for maintenance. The industry standard for budgeting is $3.00 per square foot. For comparison, Chesterfield County allots $3.89 per square foot in their budgeting process.

Cigarette tax for schools, next steps

ORD2018-031 goes before the Finance Committee TODAY at 5pm in City Hall. Committee members are Newbille (Chair), Jones (Vice Chair), Agelasto, Gray, and Larson.

After the committee discussion, this could be voted upon as early as City Council’s February 26th meeting.

If you are for or against, its time to show up and let your voice be heard. Contact your City Council member via phone or email (homepage one-click) today!