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2013-05-29 / Front Page

Group pledges to fight proposed meals tax

By Michael Buettner
NEWS EDITOR

Armed with a pitchfork, a local conservative group turned out last week to let the Board of Supervisors know they intend to fight a proposal to create a new tax on restaurant meals.

Calling themselves the Chesterfield Taxpayer Alliance Against the Meals Tax, about a dozen members of the group, led by Chester Patriots founder Ralph Carter, gathered for a demonstration and handed out flyers on the courthouse green during a break in the board’s meeting. One member carried a pitchfork, as members had been urged to do by the group’s Internet blog.

Four members of the group also spoke to the board during a scheduled public comment session.

“I find it disturbing that this five-member board voted unanimously to place a bond referendum on the ballot in November to impose a meal tax,” Carter told the board.

Carter said he was concerned that the referendum “will be marketed as money for the children and public safety” but will add to the county’s debt burden.

Carter urged the board to include highly detailed information on the ballot for the referendum including current and proposed debt levels, debt service costs and how the proposed bond funds will affect educational outcomes.

“It will be irresponsible if you fail to do this,” he said. “I am holding you accountable” for providing “full transparency on where every penny is spent.”

In order to achieve that transparency, Carter said the county needs to change the way it presents its budget and spending information on the county website. He and other members of the group urged the county to provide an easily searchable budget document with more details, and to create an “online checkbook” showing specific expenditures as they’re made.

Similar proposals were urged in February at a public hearing on the school system’s budget by another regular critic of the county government, Matoaca District resident Brenda Stewart.

Like the taxpayer group last week, Stewart singled out the school system’s spending for criticism, particularly the compensation paid to Superintendent Marcus Newsome and a provision in his contract that includes post-retirement consulting fees. She noted that former superintendents Bill Bosher and Billy Cannaday have received thousands of dollars in similar consulting fees.

At the February hearing, Dave Wyman, School Board chairman and Dale District representative, defended the school division’s spending decisions.

On the issue of compensation of superintendents, he said Chesterfield has “had the best superintendents from across the state. Those kinds of resources come with a little bit of a price tag, but it is an investment worth making. … It’s worth every penny to our school system and our community.”

Wyman also noted that the school system provides highly detailed budget information, but it takes some work to “drill down” from broad categories to more specific information. “It is a process,” he said.

In a phone interview, Carter noted that some local governments around the country have created such pages on their websites, where they post detailed records of specific spending transactions.

One notable example is the city of Bell, Calif., which drew national media attention when a number of city officials were accused of a years-long scheme to bilk the city of millions of dollars. In March of this year, five of the city’s former elected officials were convicted of misappropriating public funds.

The Bell “city checkbook,” online at www.cityofbell.org/?navid=183, resembles the monthly statement that bank customers receive for the checking accounts. It lists transactions ranging from utility payments to costs for a “ladies tea party” to the city’s monthly payroll expense of more than $237,000.

However, those monthly statements are not searchable, as they consist of scanned images of a printed document, provided in a .pdf file format.

Carter said he understands that the kind of searchable online account presentation he envisions “takes a while to develop. It’s not as if you can do it overnight.” However, he believes the cost of creating it would be “minimal.”

According to the city of Bell’s online statements, the cost of developing its enhanced “transparency” website features was about $17,000.

Carter said his opposition to the meals tax isn’t based on a blanket opposition to all taxes. On the contrary, he said, he would support a tax “when it’s necessary,” but he feels “there are cuts the county can make in spending that would make a meal tax unnecessary.

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