RVA Meals Tax: Practically Poetic Injustice

by Jon Baliles

As noted, two weeks ago City Council approved the change to city code to make sure the city’s Finance Department only applies meals tax payments to the month for which the invoice is submitted. So, no more of the shady practice that had been applying a portion of say, May’s tax payment, to an outstanding balance from April’s bill. The reason that’s a bad idea is that the city could put any account in arrears but the business owner never knew because the city had a practice of not informing the business they were in arrears, which led to the crazy snowballing of interest and penalties that resulted in bills of $37,000, $50,000, and $68,000.

Samuel Veney, the owner of Philly Vegan, who was told by the city he owed $37,000 in penalties and interest, was eloquent and forceful at the City Council podium on February 12th. He implored Council not only to listen, but to hear what he way saying — he wanted to make sure they heard how he was missing time with his children and spending too much time dealing with the city’s screw-ups instead of working at his business. Said Veney:

What we are saying to y’all right now is to take the opportunity to make change happen. It shouldn’t have gotten this far and now that it has you actually have the opportunity to actually make change happen in a better way for our city.

And then, he pulled out a letter that he had received only days before from the Finance Department. And then it gets really good….

But, as Veney points out, the letter only tells him that his balance was not paid in full and does not tell him how much is outstanding. It was sent before the new ordinance to prevent such payments from being applied to previous balances (that the city wasn’t telling Veney he had); and it serves as an example of how the city has been conducting operations in recent years. The letter is not signed by any particular agent and only leaves a general phone number to contact the 311 Customer Care line which, as we have read, is still dealing with excessive call wait times.

And Sherita McGowen, who bought the famous Croaker’s Spot in Manchester a few years ago, also spoke about how she worked with the Finance Department to get to a zero balance from some previous ownership issues, and then all of a sudden, got a bill from the city for $40,000.

She summarizes perfectly and succinctly what has happened: “every tax payment I am making is still going to a balance I know I do not owe. And so it’s compounding over and over and over again and you are caught in this cycle and you never get out of it.”

She wasn’t describing a payday lender or a mob boss — she was describing her dealing with the city.

And still, McGowen was effusively polite and practically poetic. Her fantastic and compelling short speech is well worth the watch. She pleads with Council to make it right — which they hopefully will do (hint: read to the end of the email!).

Republished with permission from RVA 5×5, where you can read an expanded update on the Richmond meals tax fiasco.