Meals-tax battle gives fall ballot a juicy subplot

Staff WriterSeptember 20, 2008 

  • On Nov. 4, Durham County voters may cast ballots for or against a 1 percent tax on prepared food, which would be added to the existing local sales and use taxes. Supporters estimate the tax would bring in about $5 million a year to start, and that figure would rise as visitor attractions are developed and improved, stimulating Durham's restaurant business.

    In August, the city and county approved a list of projects to finance with the tax if it passes. The list totals $59.6 million over a nine-year period and includes:

    * $14 million for a minor-league baseball museum

    * $14 million to expand the Hayti Heritage Center

    * $6 million to improve the Civic Center

    * $5.5 million for the Museum of Life and Science

    * smaller amounts for other projects including greenways, the Durham Arts Council and Carolina Theatre, Durham Central Park, a local-history museum and a "museum without walls" on Parrish Street.

While the 2008 presidential campaign has been going on seemingly forever, Durham County's own political season opened this week with a kickoff event for a prepared-food tax and a forum for two State House rivals.

It carries on next week with a forum for two more State House candidates and three running for a State Senate seat.

Supporters of a one-percent tax on restaurant food held a pep rally Tuesday at the Hayti Heritage Center, one of the institutions that would benefit from the tax's revenues.

While the tax, which is subject to a public referendum in the November election, is supported by the city council, county commissioners, and community-booster agencies such as Downtown Durham Inc. and the Convention & Visitors Bureau, Tuesday's audience included some tax opponents who promised a contest.

"A left-right coalition -- it's going to be impressive," said Dallas Woodhouse of Raleigh, who is organizing Durham opposition on behalf of Americans for Prosperity, a "limited-government, free-market" lobbying organization. Among his allies is Lavonia Allison, chairwoman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.

Allison said last week that although the Committee has not taken an official position on the tax referendum, it has historically opposed taxes that put a disproportionate, "regressive" burden on the poor. The prepared-food tax is such a levy, she said.

County Commissioners' chairwoman Ellen Reckhow said it is just the opposite, progressive because the percentage of household income spent at restaurants increases with income level. Affluent people, she said, would pay more of the tax than those less well off.

The tax is a Durham County initiative and is backed by the city council as well as the county commissioners. But governments and government-sponsored agencies are prohibited from campaigning on its behalf with public money -- by law they may only "educate" the public about a ballot issue.

Promotion and money-raising is being done through a "Taste for Durham's Future" committee, chaired by former mayor Sylvia Kerckhoff, Robb Teer of the Teer Associates development firm and Chuck Watts of the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. As of last week, it had raised more than $26,000 toward a $45,000 goal.

The legislation to allow Durham a vote on the tax requires that, if it passes, 80 percent of its revenue go to build or improve cultural and recreational amenities such as museums and greenways. Fifteen percent goes to marketing the county to potential visitors, 5 percent for beautification and 5 for worker training.

The Hayti Center would get $14 million in meals-tax funding, according to a wish list approved by the city and county last month. A proposed minor-league baseball museum would get the same amount, while the Museum of Life and Science, a proposed local-history museum, Civic Center improvements and a "museum without walls" on Parrish Street would be other major beneficiaries.

"It has nothing for the schools, and nothing for health care," said Nichols, a former member of the Durham Housing Authority board who attended the rally. "I don't want to see this."

In another political affair, opponents for the state House District 30 seat appeared at a candidates' forum Wednesday night. Democrat Paul Luebke, a nine-term incumbent, met Libertarian Sean Haugh, veteran of several unsuccessful campaigns for public office.

Luebke, a resident of the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood, teaches sociology at UNC-Greensboro. Haugh, Libertarian political director in Durham, lives in the Walltown neighborhood.

Their appearance was sponsored by the Triangle Green Party, which holds a second forum next week for candidates for state House District 29 and state Senate District 30.

* For the House: Larry Hall, Democratic incumbent, vs. Justin Lallinger, Libertarian challenger.

* For the Senate: Floyd B. McKissick Jr., Democratic incumbent, vs. Kenneth R. Chandler, Republican challenger, and David Rollins, Libertarian challenger.

That forum is at the Stanford L. Warren Library, 1201 Fayetteville St., and begins at 6 p.m. The public is invited.

jim.wise@newsobserver.com or (919) 932-2004

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