Jacksonville City Council rejects option of food and beverage tax in fight against homelessness

The possibility of a specialty tax brought a usual mix of groups to City Hall on Monday — restaurant owners, homeless resource organizations, domestic violence advocates and neighborhood association leaders.

A City Council committee was expected to vote to give Jacksonville the option of imposing a 1% tax on food and beverages to create a homeless trust fund – modeled on Miami-Dade County – but one of the bill’s sponsors ultimately withdrew that option after it became clear it would not pass in a committee vote. The full council will vote on the withdrawal on September 26.

The bill would not have imposed a new task but rather served as a petition to the state government for consideration. Had it passed in Tallahassee next year, the legislation would have returned to Duval County for city council members to debate.

Criticism of the bill stems from continued pressure on the restaurant industry in a post-pandemic economy.

Arguments for the bill focused on the city’s ongoing affordable housing crisis and the lack of a dedicated funding source to help solve it.

“To me, it’s just another example of people getting scared when a few people show up with a loud megaphone,” District 7 Councilmember Jimmy Peluso told the Times-Union after the vote. “You know, we need political courage in the city, and today … we didn’t see my colleagues step up when the opportunity presented itself.”

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Peluso and Michael Boylan introduced the bill after working together on the city’s special committee to address homelessness, affordable housing and access to health care – which met for the first time time a little over a year ago. The committee’s final report suggested that the tax be a way to provide dedicated, recurring resources to a homeless trust fund.

Since then, several city committees have met to discuss solutions on the same subjects, with some legislative success. However, the tax option would have been the most sustainable and far-reaching option discussed so far.

What were the arguments for and against the food and drink tax?

Although the city council could pass most laws directly, it needed permission from the state government to levy a new tax. The bill withdrawn Monday would have served as a “request,” not a definitive tax to be implemented.

Had it subsequently passed in Tallahassee, the City Council could have debated two new options: an optional 1 percent tax on food and beverages sold at restaurants with liquor licenses and an optional tax of 2% on food and beverages sold in hotels and motels.

The tax would have increased costs for customers when dining at these restaurants, such as adding an extra $1 to a $100 bill.

The funds would then have been divided between a generalized trust fund for the homeless and a fund specifically for people displaced by domestic violence. It was not immediately clear how much revenue the tax would have generated.

Miami-Dade is the only Florida county currently authorized to levy the tax after petitioning the state in 1993. Miami Beach considered the tax, with opposition similar to that of Jacksonville, in 2021.

The executive directors of the Sulzbacher Center, Changing Homelessness, Hubbard House and other Jacksonville nonprofits all came out in support of the bill, calling it the first step in a long process that could ultimately helping the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“We have worked hard with every dollar we have, and now we are asking the city for help,” Dawn Gilman, CEO of Changing Homelessness, told the committee before the vote. “The city council does not have a single budget item earmarked for a care system or a specific plan to reduce homelessness.”

Separately, restaurateurs and organizations spoke out against the bill, saying it unfairly targeted the restaurant industry which is still recovering from COVID-19 shutdowns, rising inflation and skyrocketing credit card fees.

Restaurant owners would have to pay to update their internal systems, as well as figure out how to actually pay the tax due to the vague nature of the legislation itself, Nicole Chapman said. Chapman works for the local chapter of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which represents 350 local businesses.

The organization opposed the bill, but not the fight against homelessness, Chapman said. She called hospitality an “opportunity industry” because of the opportunity for workers to climb the ladder to leadership, but it didn’t need to be taxed more than others.

“This is a societal problem, a city problem, and maybe we can find a solution that everyone can contribute to,” Chapman told the Times-Union before the vote.

What other options does the city have?

Boylan, one of the bill’s sponsors, said he would only vote to withdraw it “with great reluctance” if it meant that all other members who voted against the bill would support the research. other means of achieving the same objectives.

Council members Joe Carlucci and Terrence Freeman separately said they plan to introduce legislation in the coming weeks, but neither said where they would get the money or how it would be used.

Boylan directly asked Freeman to explain his idea.

“And I thank you for asking the question, and the answer is no,” Freeman said. “Show up to the budget on Tuesday night and we’ll have a healthy debate about it.” »

The full council will vote on Mayor Donna Deegan’s first budget on September 26 in what is expected to be a marathon meeting – starting at 3 p.m. instead of the usual 5 p.m.

Freeman’s involvement in introducing the fund as part of the budget concerned Peluso, the bill’s other sponsor, who feared it would get wrapped up in the budget process and potentially impact the mayor’s vision of the $25 million currently set aside to implement his ideas. transition committees.

“It’s a great opportunity to try to insert something that hasn’t been fully reviewed, which perhaps it should be, and certainly not through the committee process ” Peluso said.

City considering diversion program

City Council President Ron Salem briefly attended the meeting before the vote to discuss continuing the diversion process he began earlier this month.

Salem did not share his position on the bill with the committee, but he did share his intention to file a bill Tuesday that would create a trust fund specifically to help people on the verge of homelessness.

He launched the program with a one-time donation of nearly $14,000 to Changing Homelessness on September 1, leftover from the funds he raised for his installation as city council president. Legislation introduced Tuesday will propose an additional $500,000 from city council funds and $500,000 from the mayor in a trust.

Interest from this trust will be paid to Changing Homelessness to provide one-time payments of $1,500 to individuals whose costs are prohibitive and could not be covered by rental assistance programs.

“I want to focus on this poor family that’s going to be broken because mom’s car broke down and she can’t get to work,” Salem said. “It’s tragic.”

This article originally appeared on the Florida Times-Union: Jacksonville City Council Rejects Food, Beverage Tax for Homeless.

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