Council addresses local meal and hotel tax

WESTFIELD – During his briefing to the City Council on Thursday, Mayor Brian P. Sullivan asked the City Council for immediate consideration of an increase in the Local Room Occupancy Excise tax to 6%, currently at 3%, and to add a Local Option Meals Tax of a .75%, increase on the tax on meals, bringing it to 7%. The request for immediate consideration originally came from At-Large City Council David Flaherty, who said he wanted the numbers for the budget before the June 30 vote.
“Quite honestly, the budget needs it. It’s a funding source. Everybody is already doing it,” Sullivan said, referring to surrounding communities.
Regarding the meals tax, Sullivan said the state has allowed local communities to add the three quarters of a percent on top of the state tax of 6.25% to come back to the city. He said on a $100 meal, the local tax would be around 70 cents. He said the meals tax could bring $425,000 in additional revenue to the city, and the Hotel Tax, $75,000 in revenue.
During the meeting, which began after Council President Brent B. Bean, II requested a moment of silence for the victims in Orlando, the taxes were debated at length.
Ward 4 Councilor Mary O’ Connell objected to the rush. “I know the Mayor is looking for us to approve this tonight. I would like to see this go to L&O (Legislative & Ordinance Committee). I think it’s unfair at the 11th hour to pass it,” she said.
“I would normally agree with you, but I’m in favor of moving it forward. If we wait, it’s not going to pass until January,” Flaherty responded.
The Council then voted to suspend the rules for a vote at the meeting on the taxes.
“This mostly affects people who are non-residents. It doesn’t affect residents. Basically, you have a lot of business people coming through that are accustomed to paying this,” said At-Large Councilor Cindy C. Harris, referring to the hotel tax, which was the first up for discussion.
“We need to look at new sources of revenue to offset crushing property taxes,” said At-Large Councilor Steven Dondley.
“I would support this if it were going to pay down OPEB (Other Post Employee Benefits), or roads, but it’s going to the general fund. I’m not in favor of it at all,” said Flaherty. When asked why he then pushed for the immediate consideration, Flaherty responded that it is already assumed in the Mayor’s budget.
“In regards to the room tax, I’m not generally one to advocate for tax increases, but this does not affect residents,” said At-Large Councilor Matthew T. VanHeynigen, adding that especially now that he serves on the Finance Committee, he sees the need for new revenue.
Ward 2 Councilor Ralph J. Figy said he voted for this twice before, and believes it should be given serious consideration. The majority of the Council then voted 8-3 in favor of the hotel tax.
The Local Option Meals Tax drew more resistance.
“It’s a little bit of a hard sell, I’ll admit,” said Dondley. He said, as a single person, an average meal out would be $20-$25, which would mean an additional tax of .25 cents. Dondley said he believed it would be helpful to alleviate the property tax burden, and was absolutely in favor of it.
“I’m very opposed to this tax. Restaurant owners don’t want it, residents don’t want it. The majority of people who eat in Westfield are from Westfield,” said Flaherty.
“Westfield is approaching the cap of what we can possibly tax under (Proposition) 2 ½%, We can’t raise property taxes any more. Then what are we going to do? As attractive as this chunk of money is, we definitely have to do controlled spending,” said Allie.
Surprise ran down a list of items other than meals that the tax would affect, including frozen prepared meals, coffee to go, buying a hamburger, and venues serving food. “We’re talking about people who work in Westfield, blue collar workers. If someone is renting a room at Westfield State University and serving a meal, the whole room is charged the tax,” Surprise said.
“Surrounding communities have implemented this tax. We’re one of the only ones who aren’t. We’re making a mountain out of a molehill. On a cup of coffee, it would probably be less than a penny,” Dondley said.
“I’m shocked by your words. Many of us pledged in recent elections to keep taxes down. This is the vote,” O’Connell responded.
Ward 6 Councilor William Onyski said he agreed that the matter should go to L&O. Bean said if one Councilor objected to an immediate vote, then it would come off the floor. Onyski made the motion to send it to committee.
“I’m trying to decide if I ever want to eat out again,” said Ward 1 Councilor Mary Ann Babinski. “I agree with Councilor Onyski because there seems to be a lot more to this.”
The matter was then sent to committee. Later in the meeting, however, Flaherty said it would be difficult to pass the Mayor’s budget without knowing whether or not to include the income. He persuaded the Council to take up the meals tax again at the June 29 City Council meeting, prior to the June 30 passage of the budget.

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