Taking care of the meals tax

Published 9:17 pm Monday, July 16, 2012

If you were to measure Suffolk’s growth in terms of restaurants, you’d note the arrival of new fast food franchises, new ice cream and yogurt shops, new sushi restaurants, new lunchtime eateries and new fine-dining establishments. Suffolk residents new and old benefit from the growing diversity of eateries from which they can choose to buy breakfast, lunch or dinner.

A secondary benefit that comes from all those new restaurants is a tax base with an ever-growing amount of support from the city’s 6.5-percent meals tax. For every dollar spent in Suffolk’s restaurants, the city collects 6.5 cents in taxes. That money helps fund schools, roads, salaries and everything else in which the city is involved, and it helps reduce the amount of support that must be provided by property owners, thereby keeping down the costs of homeownership Suffolk.

The thing about the meals tax that is often misunderstood is that it’s not paid by restaurants. Instead, restaurants collect the tax from their diners and then — at least when they’re doing things right — turn the collected money over to the city. The meals tax is a “pass-through tax.” Taxpayers — the diners who pay the dinner bills, plus 6.5-percent tax — entrust restaurateurs to keep the money safe until it’s time each month to turn it over to the city. When an eatery is doing things the right way, there’s no way the money it has collected can be spent and, therefore, no way the restaurant can fall short of its obligations.

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Unfortunately, as is often true in business, the people who are good at business are not always good at bookkeeping. Similarly, those folks who are good at cooking or running restaurants are not necessarily the ones who are good at accounting for the money they collect, and they sometimes don’t pay their meals tax bills on time or completely.

That’s where Suffolk’s treasurer’s office comes in. And that office has a great record of collecting the money it’s due. Starting with phone calls, letters and visits and progressing potentially as far as sheriff’s sales and jail time, the treasurer’s efforts are designed to do as little damage to a business as possible, while still collecting the money that is owed.

Since they’re the ones who pay the tax, Suffolk residents and others who eat in the city’s restaurants should be glad for the work being done to collect that money. And they have every right to be disappointed when their favorite restaurateur fails to handle the money carefully. Even restaurants in our society have a role in preserving the public trust.