A series of new taxes approved last month fueled even more debate at Tuesday’s meeting of the Carbondale City Council, with some business leaders looking for ways to ease the pain even as leaders said the new revenue is the only way to begin reversing a decades-long decline.
In June, the council passed a series of new measures that include a 4 percent tax on prepared food and beverages, a 4 percent tax on package liquor sales and a 4-cents-per-gallon tax on motor fuel, all of it aimed at raising about $4.8 million in annual revenue for the city. Leaders say the money will go to pay the city’s police and fire pension obligations, as well as to fund improvements throughout the city.
Ken Rhude, owner of Little Egypt Beer, said publicly after last month’s vote that he was halting his development of a brewery and restaurant in Carbondale because of the new tax on prepared food and beverage sales. He told the council Tuesday that there will be unforeseen consequences of the recent actions.
“I’m concerned about the frequency of visits to my location when this tax goes up to 4 percent,” Rhude said. “We’re talking about raising the total cost on some fixed-income people. I don’t think that was intentional at all, but whenever people are living on limited means, it’s really going to reduce their ability to get out and get a meal.”
Echoing Rhude’s concerns were citizen Donna Gibson, who said seniors living on Social Security have not received a recent cost-of-living increase because of a drop in gas prices. Lance Jack, owner of Fat Patties, stressed that it was “disheartening” that the prepared food and beverage tax does not apply as written to food sales at convenience stores and salad bars.
“Yes, 4 percent is high, and yes, it was a shock to a lot of people, but if we’re going to do this we do need to spread the pain as much as possible,” Jack said.
Mayor Mike Henry said the council is looking at that issue and plans to possibly refine the tax in the near future.
“We are going to pursue the convenience store food and deli food tax,” Henry said. “Staff hasn’t done anything with it yet, I don’t believe, but it’ll take us a while to put it together. We are going to do it as expeditiously as possible.”
During the council comments portion of the meeting, Councilman Adam Loos was blunt about the need for the additional revenue, saying Carbondale “on the path it’s on is dying.”
“For years and years and years, this city has been laying golden eggs for some of its business owners, many of whom don’t live in town,” Loos said. “In real estate, particularly, great fortunes have been made, and often on a business model that has not been in the best interest of this city — the business model of block-busting, of deferred maintenance and of abusive tenants. Thankfully a lot of that has gone away, but we’re left with the wreckage of it. We’ve also suffered from decades and decades of underinvestment.
“To fix this problem requires money. Nobody likes to vote for tax increases, but we have to do it. The alternative is we can fold everything up, and we can all disperse, and let us never speak of Carbondale again. But I don’t think that’s a good option. I think we need to fund the improvements we need.”
Councilwoman Jessica Bradshaw echoed Loos’ remarks, although she said she felt somewhat more hopeful about the situation.
“I hope that people will continue to support these types of projects,” Bradshaw said of community improvement and beautification efforts. “If you want to see our streets improved for bicycles and pedestrians and just general beautification of this city, we need to pitch in, and that means paying a little more when you go out to eat or drink or fill up your gas tank.”
Mayor Henry was frank about the online conversation that has followed the passage of the taxes, saying that political discussion on social media “isn’t worth the thumbprint to turn it on” and that alleged impropriety leading up to the council’s votes “never freaking happened.” Henry said the council’s recent actions are an investment in the city’s future.
“We did the right thing,” Henry said. “This council was bold and forthright and transparent in what we did, and I’m glad we did it. We have done the right thing. Carbondale will look different five years from now. You won’t recognize this city, and it will all be for the better.”