The question of whether to exempt unprepared foods from sales tax is likely to be posed to Juneau residents via poll before appearing on municipal ballots after Monday night’s Committee of the Whole meeting. (Unsplash / nrd)

The question of whether to exempt unprepared foods from sales tax is likely to be posed to Juneau residents via poll before appearing on municipal ballots after Monday night’s Committee of the Whole meeting. (Unsplash / nrd)

Food tax exemption to get a survey instead of a vote

Advisory vote during fall election nixed by Assembly members, who say poll will provide better data

Juneau voters will apparently be getting a poll, rather than going to the polls, to determine whether they favor eliminating sales taxes on food.

City and Borough of Juneau Assembly members previously nixed a proposal to put a question implementing an exemption on the October municipal election ballot, which may have been paired with raising the city’s 5% sales tax to 6% from April through September to make up for the lost revenue. Instead, the Assembly supported an advisory vote on the question and, depending on the outcome, possibly a “real” vote next year.

But Deputy Mayor Maria Gladziszewski, during the Assembly’s Committee of the Whole meeting Monday night, proposed the opinion poll after reviewing the draft language for two sets of advisory vote questions submitted by city officials to the committee.

“These ballot questions I think are confusing,” she said. “If people pass them, we have to work on this again, and if we pass another (ballot) vote people are going to wonder if they already voted on it.”

Advocates say exempting non-prepared foods from sales taxes will help low-income residents. But there was considerable pushback to a seasonal sales tax from many local businesses who do little or no businesses with tourists, arguing it will severely impact both companies and customers purchasing big-ticket items such as vehicles and home-improvement materials.

Gladziszewski said her preference at earlier meetings was putting a question actually implementing the food tax exemption on the ballot. But since that was rejected, hiring a pollster means a wider range of questions can be asked and help Assembly members determine what should appear on a future ballot if residents appear to favor one.

While a scientifically valid survey would limit questioning to a representative sample of residents, she said additional methods such as an online poll will allow for open participation by all and can be used for comparative purposes.

The draft ballot questions submitted to the committee by City Attorney Robert Palmer consisted of “A” and “B” groups.

The “A” group asked four questions, first about whether the voter favors a food tax exemption and then three questions about options for making up for the lost revenue. The options were a seasonal sales tax increase, a year-round sales tax increase and an increase in the property tax mill rate. No specific amounts for the tax increases are included in the draft questions, but a 6% seasonal sales tax, 5.5% year-round sales tax, or a 1 mill property tax increase were discussed by the Assembly during previous meetings.

The “B” group narrowed the list to three questions, stating “the Assembly intends on exempting food from sales tax” and asking voters which of the three compensatory tax increases they prefer.

City Manager Rorie Watt said hiring a company to do a survey this fall will likely cost roughly $30,000.

Most of the other Assembly members agreed with a poll instead of an advisory ballot question, but Carole Triem said she doesn’t see a survey accomplishing much.

“It’s still going to have to go on the ballot and we’re still going to have to vote on it,” she said. “I feel it’s somewhat pointless to survey people before they have to vote on it anyways.”

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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