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Proposed Tax Increases Draw Arts Groups, Musicians and Cigarette Vendors 

Missing in Action: Restaurant Groups and Leaf Activists.

click to enlarge People line up for public comment period at the City Council meeting on Apr. 24.

People line up for public comment period at the City Council meeting on Apr. 24.

City Council’s first public comment period on the proposed budget that starts in July drew around 70 speakers -- many addressing members’ proposed tax changes.

The council president, Chris Hilbert, its vice president, Cynthia Newbille, and member Ellen Robertson have proposed raising the tax on performing arts events and concerts from 7 percent to 10 percent, netting the city an extra $1.3 million yearly.

Council hasn’t discussed the proposal yet, and it’s unclear if it has the five votes to advance or six votes to overcome a mayoral veto. But arts groups on Monday were not wasting any time letting council know where they stood.

Musician Jeremy Simmons called the proposed 3 percent increase “catastrophic to local musicians.”

“Richmond used to be a B or C market for the music industry, but it’s beginning to thrive,” said Lucas Fritz, co-owner of the Broadberry venue. Raising the admissions tax, he said, would make concert tickets more expensive and discourage artists from coming or playing.

Nonprofit arts directors such as Scott Garka of CultureWorks, Howard Bender of the Virginia Opera, David Fisk of the Richmond Symphony and Janet Starke of the Richmond Performing Arts Alliance, formerly CenterStage Foundation, also disapproved of the increase.

They were also there to support amendments giving an additional $117,300 to CultureWorks and $180,000 to performing arts companies that rent space at Altria Theater and Dominion Arts Center.

Five store owners spoke against a proposed cigarette tax. Councilman Parker Agelasto has proposed collecting 80 cents on each pack for school facilities. His proposal estimates collecting $5 million a year, but a Finance Department impact summary cautioned diminishing future returns on sales.

That was the concern of Sanket Acharya, a store owner, who said the tax would increase theft and cigarette smuggling. “It’s not going to stop people from smoking,” he said. “They’ll find cigarettes somewhere else.”

Another storeowner noted his shop was two blocks from Henrico County, which the state does not give authority to levy a cigarette tax. He feared people would quickly learn to avoid the 80 cents by crossing the county line.

One speaker early in the night did support the tax, saying it would mean much-needed money for schools and discourage youth smoking. And advocates from the American Heart Association were on hand with literature saying store owners’ concerns were unfounded.

But almost more interesting than who showed up on Monday was who didn’t.

Despite uproar from some parts of the city when it was first announced, no one came to decry the mayor’s proposed changes to leaf and bulk trash collection via a $2.50 fee increase on solid waste. Agelasto has proposed to remove that increase and forego the $2.47 million the city hoped to collect for more frequent bulk and brush removal.

And restaurant owners were missing over a proposed increase to the meals tax. Newbille and Robertson have suggested increasing the tax on prepared meals from 6 percent to 7 percent, netting the city $6.1 million more a year.

The tax went up from 5 percent to 6 percent in 2003 to fund the renovation and construction of what is now the Dominion Arts Center. It was sold to residents as a temporary increase at the time. Its staying power has attracted the ire of restaurateurs. With the state’s 5 percent sales tax, the proposed increase would see dining out taxed at 12 percent in all.

Council budget discussions continue Wednesday, and public comment is sure to resume at the City Council meeting May 8.

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