Manassas looks to raise cigarette tax

Manassas may soon join a growing number of cities and towns in Virginia that are raising cigarette taxes.

Two weeks ago, members of the City Council told City Manager Lawrence Hughes that raising the tax from 15 to 25 cents per pack was an option they wanted to keep open during budget talks this March.

“There was a general consensus that the city manager should consider a 25-cent tax rate,” said Vice Mayor Harry J. (Hal) Parrish II.

Hughes says raising the cigarette tax 10 cents would create an extra $210,000 in revenue for the city next year, money which would help pay for a variety of projects.

Such a move wouldn’t be much of a concern for local barber Jim Stricker, who usually grabs discounted cartons of Newports at a store off Va. 28 as he drives from his home in Centreville to the Old Towne Barber Shop in downtown Manassas.

Stricker wasn’t aware of very many smokers who bought cigarettes in the city, where prices are generally higher.

“People who smoke know where to buy cigarettes,” he said. “They’re not going to go to a 7-Eleven [in the city].”

In Virginia, only cities and towns are allowed to have local cigarette taxes. Only two counties — Arlington and Fairfax –have special state laws allowing them to have 5-cent taxes on cigarettes, the revenues of which go to public schools.

Among cities and towns in Northern Virginia, Manassas’ cigarette tax is fairly low. Alexandria recently raised its tax to 50 cents per pack. Fairfax charges 30 cents. Leesburg and Falls Church charge 25 cents. Manassas Park’s tax is 15 cents, the same as Manassas.

There is no limit on how much cities and towns are able to tax. But with more than 10 bills in the Virginia General Assembly proposing an increase in the state’s 2.5 cents-per-pack tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1966, cities might find their ability to tax limited.

“It’s long been understood from the cities’ and towns’ perspectives that if and when the state taxes are raised, there will be efforts to cap cities’ ability to tax,” said Mike Edwards, deputy director of the Virginia Municipal League.

With House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell, R-28th District, Fredericksburg, and Senate President Pro Tempore John H. Chichester, R-28th District, Stafford, both against raising any taxes, those seeking to raise the cigarette tax are facing an uphill battle.

Tobacco also has a long history as the state’s cash crop. Cigarette maker Philip Morris USA is one of the largest employers in Richmond.

And yet cities and towns, such as Alexandria and Virginia Beach, are starting to raise the local taxes anyway.

Only last week, the Manassas Park City Council asked City Manager David Reynal for more information on cigarette taxes in other jurisdictions.

Prince William County might also be able to tax cigarettes if a number of bills in the General Assembly pass. But the county has no official position on the matter at this time, said Dana Fenton, legislative liaison for the county.

Staff writer Chris Newmarker can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 119.

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