A moral map: The city budget is a chance to show what matters to us

The city has proposed a 1 percent increase 
in the meals tax in its 2020 budget. Photo: Robert Llewelyn The city has proposed a 1 percent increase in the meals tax in its 2020 budget. Photo: Robert Llewelyn

It’s budget season. For four months every year, council and staff hold public meetings about the coming year’s priorities. For four months, I sit through what I am absolutely certain is the exact same PowerPoint at least a dozen times. Much of it remains inscrutable to me. I am growing comfortable with the idea that I’ll never be entirely sure what it means in the real world to move money around on paper. What I do understand, though, is that the city, like most of us, can’t pay for everything it wants.

“The city has better ways of getting income,” Joan Fenton, president of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville, said at a March 4 council meeting of the possibility of raising tax rates. Better ways than taxation? Localities too afraid to raise taxes (because of the ire of business owners like Fenton) often rely on fees and fines to increase revenue. That means raising court costs and turning the city into a speed trap to fill the holes in our budget, which would disproportionately impact the poor. It is regressive and unreliable and relies on a weaponized justice system.

While a truly progressive tax is an avenue not available to the city under the Dillon Rule, there are revenue streams that don’t literally rely on criminalizing poverty. Raising tax rates provides a reliable, steady revenue stream to tackle the problems the alternative would only exacerbate.

While much about the budget process remains opaque to me, it is bewildering to see what feels like intentional misrepresentations about what it would mean to raise meals and lodging tax rates. Business owners have appeared at public comment to make the case that increased meals and lodging taxes would hurt their business. One restaurant owner said he would have to raise prices to account for the “loss,” but failed to explain how an additional one dollar in tax on a $100 meal at his pricey establishment would drive down business to the point that he would have to raise prices to make a profit.

The restaurant experiences no loss here. The tax is paid by the consumer and only passes through the business. The hysteria is puzzling to me.

When you make your personal budget, you have to make hard decisions about what’s important to you and what things you can do without. It’s the same when a city makes a budget, except we’re deciding what our neighbors should do without. The real hurdle in balancing the budget is not a column on a spreadsheet, but in the public understanding of what the budget is. A budget is more than just a balance of revenues and expenditures—it’s a moral document, an agreement about what is important to us.

Beyond the public protestations of business owners about the meals and lodging rates, there has been a lot of uncertainty about the real estate tax rate, whose increase would fund affordable housing. At a March 16 budget forum, Councilor Kathy Galvin was vocally in favor of a 1-1-1 increase. By Wednesday night, she was expressing relief that the real estate tax would remain steady for another year. While the higher rate was advertised, it seems we won’t know the fate of the tax until the March 27 work session.

At the first reading of the final 2019 budget in April of last year, the meeting went into an hour-long recess due to threats of violence from an armed neo-Confederate. A woman had just commented that the Downtown Mall was the jewel of Charlottesville. That jewel sits in a crown forged by centuries of racial inequity. The violence isn’t always as overt as an angry racist with a gun in council chambers. Sometimes, it creeps insidiously into our lives, in the form of a budget that doesn’t value the lives of our most vulnerable community members.

UVA professor Walt Heinecke offered us a positive reframing at a recent public comment period: When the national press returns to Charlottesville this summer to ask us what we’ve done to address the conditions underlying the violence of the summer of hate, let this budget be the jewel in our crown, he said. He urged council to move forward with the real estate tax increase to put money into affordable housing and to publicly frame the meals and lodging tax increases as a public good—even going as far as proposing a campaign to put signs in restaurant windows advertising the meals tax increase as a micro-investment in equity. I’m not sure this budget goes far enough to deserve to be called a crown jewel. But it has the potential to be a down payment on a crown this city never earned.

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