By Joe L. Fisher
Voters gathered Saturday at the Hotel Mac for a town hall-style discussion of the proposed Measure N tax on businesses selling sugar-sweetened beverages and its likely economic consequences for Richmond families and shop and restaurant owners.
The forum was scheduled to allow a panel of experts on Measure N to explain the breadth of the tax—which would cover a much more than soda sales—and the implications when local markets, convenience stores and restaurants are forced to pass along the levy in the form of higher prices.
Panelist Chuck Finnie, the No on Measure N spokesman, explained that N is really a new business license tax for the right to operate in Richmond and would have to be paid at a rate of one cent per ounce of any sugar-sweetened beverage sold, traded or otherwise provided in the city of Richmond.
A sugar-sweetened beverage is defined under the measure as any beverage containing any amount of any form of added sugar.
“We are talking about a tax that applies to more than 700 products—including everything from flavored milks, to many juices, to sports drinks, sweet teas and coffees, ethnic-oriented beverages like horchata and aquas frescas, as well as certain nutritional supplements,” Finnie said.
Panelist Lloyd Madden, president of the Black American Political Action Committee (BAPAC), said the regressive nature of Measure N—that is, that it will be passed along in higher grocery prices—is a chief reason that most African-American faith leaders and former and current elected officials, local medical doctors, and several community, civic and political organizations are opposing Measure N as unfair.
“We know that you don’t make people healthier by taking money out of their pocket,” Madden said. “We need to be doing the opposite and make it easier for people to be able to afford healthy choices.”
Pointing to a glass of orange juice in front of her, panelist Judy Morgan, president of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, said the tax would be a costly administrative burden for local businesses as they try to keep track of how much they owe based on the quantity of covered beverages sold.
“It is going to be an accounting nightmare,” Morgan said. “And it is going to result in millions of dollars in lost sales for our local businesses when shoppers and diners go elsewhere to shop for groceries or go out for meal with friends and family.”
Bea Roberson, president of the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council and a candidate for City Council, brought a neighborhood perspective to the No on Measure N panel. Roberson said there are plenty of alternative ways to raise money for new anti-obesity efforts that won’t hurt families and local businesses.
“We had a developer who recently offered to build soccer fields as a part of a new shopping center project,” Roberson said. “The same council members who were happy to put this new tax on the ballot were the same council members who previously voted no on that shopping center and those soccer fields.”
Rounding out the panel was Rosa Lara, a No on Measure N organizer who was born and raised in Richmond. Lara said Measure N reflects misplaced priorities on the part of a city council that should be focused on increasing employment, raising wages and making the streets and parks safer for Richmond youth to walk, run and play in.
“I used to go out and play in the streets without a care in the world,” Lara said. “How does a new tax that takes money out of our pockets supposed to help that situation?”
It won’t, was the resounding answer from the other panelists and the assembled voters and community leaders who gathered for the Town Hall. And that’s why it is important, they said, to vote no on Measure N, this misleading, misguided and unfair so-called ‘soda tax.”