Although Wegmans recently announced it will eliminate plastic bags companywide by the end of 2022, other grocery stores in Albemarle County could soon be charging their customers 5 cents for the disposable plastic sacks.
Community members expressed support for a proposed 5 cent plastic bag tax Wednesday night to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, which is scheduled to vote May 4 on whether to implement the tax in Albemarle. If the board approves it, the tax would go into effect January 1.
Wegmans announced last week that its goal is to shift all customers to reusable bags, and that it will charge 5 cents per paper bag. The amount collected from the paper-bag charge will be donated to the local food bank and United Way, the company said.
Margaret Walker, a member of the Green Grannies of Charlottesville, said to the Board of Supervisors that the grannies want Wegman’s to charge $1 for paper bags. The group of Charlottesville area women sing to “educate, entertain and energize our community to take action to protect our earth,” their Facebook page says.
“For a cleaner and healthier environment, stop pollution from plastic … so I hope you always remember that when you go shopping, ‘a tisket, a tasket, bring your own bag or basket,’” Walker sang to the board, as she strummed her ukulele.
In 2020, the General Assembly and the governor changed state law to allow cities and counties to tax bags. The city of Roanoke became the first locality to adopt the tax last year, and at least four additional localities have followed since. Those five localities began taxing bags at the start of 2022.
If the county adopts an ordinance, stores would collect the tax at the time of the sale and remit it to the state. Money raised must go to “support environmental cleanup, litter and pollution mitigation, or environmental education efforts or to provide reusable bags to recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Women, Infants, and Children Program benefits.”
Plastic bags solely used to prevent damage or contamination of multiple items such meat, produce, dry cleaning and prescription drugs would not be subject to a tax.
“The state code specifically says disposable plastic bags, so the interpretation of that is paper bags do not fit into that definition,” said Jacob Sumner, the county’s assistant CFO for policy and partnership.
Some plastic bags can be recycled, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the recycling rate for plastic bags, sacks and wraps was 10% in 2018. The agency says plastic pollution is particularly dangerous because it does not fully biodegrade in the environment.
If approved, Sumner estimated the revenues from the taxes will be $20,000 for the county in fiscal year 2023.
During the public hearing, Michael Pillow, with the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club, encouraged the board to adopt the tax, and said the main concern the group has heard is that it could affect community members with lower incomes.
“You can avoid this tax altogether by bringing your own bag, by avoiding bags altogether like some stores do and the county can provide reusable bags with the revenue,” he said.
He held up a reusable tote bag, and said the Piedmont Group has purchased more than 250 bags and is working with a local food pantry to distribute them.
Supervisors were generally supportive of the implementing the tax but will formally vote next month.
Public hearings were also held on proposals to increase the transient occupancy tax rate charged to hotel guests from 5% to 8% and the rate of the food and beverage tax, also known as the meals tax, from 4% to 6%.
Business owners have said the tax hikes will burden their customers and could hurt their businesses.
Roy Van Doorn, the former chair of the Charlottesville chapter of the Virginia Restaurant Lodging and Travel Association, urged the board to reconsider increasing the meals tax.
“I do not need to inform you about the devastation that the restaurant industry has continued to suffer,” he said. “COVID and mandatory obligations forced on our industry have devastated the entire local restaurant community. Some say, ‘Well the restaurants are still open so they’re okay,’ but from my vantage point behind the scenes, they’re suffering mightily.”
Supervisor Jim Andrews asked if any analysis was done about who is currently paying the meals tax in Albemarle, and how much of revenues are coming from local residents versus visitors.
Sumner said he did not have a specific analysis, but consensus that county staff reached doing research was that it’s a mix.
“There are residents that do partake in the restaurant industry, but we also have a robust tourism industry and we do have a lot of folks that are coming in from outside the community, whether it’s for tourism or for work that partake in our restaurants,” he said.
When the board worked last year to decide whether to implement a cigarette tax, the ordinance went through an equity impact assessment by the county’s Office of Equity and Inclusion.
When asked if the proposals to increase the hotel and meals taxes went through any equity review, County Executive Jeff Richardson said in an email that for several years, the Board of Supervisors has sought opportunities to diversify the county’s local revenues to reduce the reliance on real property taxes.
“The transient occupancy tax and food and beverage tax rates were recommended to increase in order to spread the local tax burden across a broader population, as real property taxes are paid solely by those who live here,” he said. “Transient occupancy tax is largely paid for by tourists and food and beverage tax is shared by residents but also tourists and those who work, shop or recreate in Albemarle County but live in another locality — in recognition that everyone who visits our community benefits from our County services and public amenities.”
The board is scheduled to hold public hearings after 6 p.m. April 27 at the McIntire Road County Office Building for the proposed fiscal year 2023 budget and calendar year 2022 tax rates. It is scheduled to adopt a fiscal year 2023 budget and approve tax rates at its May 4 meeting.