MORGANTOWN – An upcoming 3 percent tax on restaurant meals in Morgantown has been met with a mixed response.
In a 4-2 vote Thursday, the city council passed the restaurant tax, which will begin Jan. 1, to pay off a 25-year bond for an estimated $3.5 million to $3.8 million in renovations at Charles T. Black City Park.
The tax will be applied to the gross amount of each sale of all food and beverages (excluding other taxes), and it is up to each restaurant to decide whether the tax will be applied to a customer’s bill or if the restaurant itself will absorb it.
Longtime Butler County resident Margaret Ann Huff attended the council meeting and said she is highly disappointed, upset and angry.
“The majority of people are elderly and we live on Social Security. Yeah, we may get a little raise once a year. But the county taxes go up, the city taxes, there’s tax on this, tax on (that). And we don’t gain a thing,” Huff said.
“And our only pleasure is watching TV or going out to eat maybe a couple times a month, and you’re going to tax us again? I think it’s totally unfair to the citizens.”
Two council members, Jason Gaskey and Sterling White, also agreed that the restaurant tax is not the best funding option.
“I went door to door and had elderly women, ladies crying. Specifically, one was crying and didn’t want any taxes at all, and I told her that I wasn’t going to vote for any other taxes” Gaskey said.
After the tax ordinance passed its first reading last month, Gaskey and White came up with two funding alternatives. They said these options would have shortened the funding payoff time, saved the city more than $1 million in interest rates and maintained emergency funds.
The first suggestion involved using $750,000 in budget surplus funds each year over the next five years, which would amount to $3.75 million for park improvements.
But Morgantown Mayor Billy Phelps said the city’s budget surplus, which is about $1.5 million this year, may not always be as large.
Phelps said the second idea to put $500,000 to $700,000 toward a five-year bank loan of $3.75 million would force him to make cuts to other city departments.
No residents voiced their opposition to the tax at Thursday’s meeting.
“I kind of expected (Thursday’s) vote,” Gaskey said. “(Since) people didn’t get out and really stand up and make themselves heard.”
Phelps said City Hall hasn’t received any complaints, either “As a matter of fact, it’s the exact opposite. We have people that come in that say they’re excited about getting a new city park,” Phelps said.
One of those people is resident Josh Hampton, who said the tax will allow “communities of our size to be able to compete, and to be able to garner some income for things like this.”
Council member Russell Givens voted yes and said he wishes a tax wasn’t the answer, but that it’s a “viable option.”
“This tax (legislation) was put through by our state government,” Givens said. “It gives the ability for towns our size to raise your own money and to invest in the projects that you see fit. And this is a project that we see fit. … I wish there was another way we could do it, I wish that the revenue streams were different (for) the city of Morgantown.”
Phelps appointed seven people to serve on a City Tourism and Convention Commission to oversee the project, which is set to begin in July 2020 and is estimated to take a year and a half.
Charles T. Black City Park is the only park in Morgantown and hasn’t had any major changes since it was created in 1977, according to Phelps.
Some of the 32 renovations outlined in the City Park Master Plan include adding a splash pad, six new tennis courts, an 18-hole disc golf course and batting cages, along with updates to existing walking trails, bathrooms and sports fields and courts.
Once the 25-year bond is paid off, the city will decide whether to maintain, adjust or remove the tax.