The Roanoke City Council unanimously passed a five-cent single-use plastic bag tax that will go into effect January 1, 2022. The tax applies to grocery stores, convenience stores, and drug stores, and includes exemptions for reusable “durable bags.” It also exempts bags sold to package perishables, dry cleaning, and prescription drugs.
The council has been considering the tax for months, enabled by 2020 General Assembly legislation that authorizes localities to implement such taxes, but the council has actually wanted the tax for years. Mayor Sherman Lea, Sr. said in the council’s Monday evening meeting that the council had including the tax on a legislative request list for years, but legislators didn’t take the request seriously.
“We were a laughingstock in Richmond,” Lea said.
Council Member William Bestpitch said that changed after northern Virginia jurisdictions started requesting the authority to introduce the tax.
“They stopped laughing at us when all the jurisdictions up in northern Virginia decided it wasn’t such a bad idea. That’s what got it through the General Assembly,” Bestpitch said.
In previous meetings considering the tax, council members said they wanted more time to evaluate the economic impact and reach out to the community for comment. On Monday, City Manager Bob Cowell and Vice Mayor Patricia White-Boyd said they had met with representatives from trade organizations, Food Lion, and a local corner store.
Cowell told the Council, “They shared some of the same concerns that were raised previously but they also highlighted ultimately their support of an effort to actually rid the community of plastic bags. [I’m] not saying they were necessarily supportive of the tax as much as they were not having the plastic bags.”
“Most of their concerns were not about the tax itself but it was about the implementation process,” White-Boyd said.
Cowell said questions about the logistics of how the Virginia Department of Taxation will collect the revenues from the businesses remain in place, but that officials said they would develop a plan after a locality had passed an ordinance creating the tax.
The tax revenue can only be used for environment cleanup, education to reduce environmental waste, and to provide reusable bags to customers on low-income food benefits programs. Retailers are also allowed to keep a small percentage of the tax to offset their own costs related to implementing the tax. Cowell said the city would work on multiple outreach programs to notify the community of the pending change and to provide reusable bags for low-income residents.
Council Member Joseph Cobb said he supports the idea of getting rid of single-use plastic bags, but he expressed reservation about the ordinance. “I’m not real thrilled about the way this bill is written. I think it still does not get to the heart of the problem, which is the production of plastics and I think the optics — if we were talking about a checkout bag charge rather than a tax, I think that would be received very differently.”
The council members mentioned that Kroger was already pushing to eliminate single-use plastic bags in its stores. “I think what this does is puts this in front of some other stores that haven’t gotten to that point yet and puts it in front of the public,” Bestpitch said.
The council held two public hearings, including one before the Monday vote. Three people spoke on Monday, all in favor of the tax.
White-Boyd said, “Based on the two public hearings that we’ve had, most of the citizens that I’ve spoken with and that I’ve heard from are all in favor of the tax.”
“As an avid runner in Roanoke City, I am saddened by the amount of plastic bags strewn around the trees on our roads and especially our greenway system. A greenway is spotlighted as a tourist attraction, and unfortunately those who visit our beautiful city are met with the awful sight of plastic bags in our trees,” Julie Wagner said in the public comment period.
Wagner prefers a plastic bag ban, but in the absence of that option, she supports the tax.
She said, “Passing the tax will help to move the needle in the direction it needs to go to help alleviate dependency on plastic bags.”
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