Editor’s note: TCB updated its news story on Tuesday evening to include responses from Mayor Nancy Vaughan and councilmember Zack Matheny.

Every few years, an idea comes along that’s so ill-conceived, so tone-deaf, it unites enemies in opposition — like New Coke or the last season of “Game of Thrones” (Who better to lead than Bran the Broken? Literally anybody, Tyrion.).

But what if an idea pitched by leaders in Greensboro was so wrong-headed it forced liberals and conservatives to hold their noses and work together to defeat it? The local powers that be are serving up such an opportunity on a — what? “Silver platter” is such a cliché. How about “on a Meyer Sound Constellation electronic acoustic enhancement system?”

I’m talking about a possible tax on prepared foods: restaurant meals, convenience store fountain drinks, hot dogs from street vendors and, gulp, screwdrivers at College Hill Sundries. As reported by TCB, Greensboro city leaders are floating the idea to subsidize the $96 million Tanger Center (home of said sound system) and the ever-expanding Greensboro Coliseum Complex.

Six counties in North Carolina, including Mecklenburg and Wake, levy a 1 percent tax on prepared foods. That’s 20 cents on a $20 restaurant tab. 

Counties have two options for enacting it. There’s the democratic route: letting voters decide through a referendum.

The other involves a tactic commonly used by North Carolina’s municipalities, but something that’s a tad autocratic for my political tastes: not letting the people decide. The General Assembly can vote to give Guilford County’s nine commissioners the wholesale authority to approve the tax themselves, bypassing local voters.  

Guess which option Greensboro is pursuing?

Honestly, I’m not sure the “hows” of making diners paying more at Yum-Yum, Machete and Stephanie’s are as important as the “whys.” The very idea of asking all citizens to pay more for food — a necessity — so the Tanger Center gets better Broadway shows is simply breathtaking.

The Tanger Center in Greensboro

“It’s a bad idea,” said Justin Conrad, a former commissioner, noting the sales tax referendum voters shot down in 2022. “A recycled bad idea.”

You might expect Conrad, a conservative whose family has deep roots in foodservice, to oppose the move. True, he’s not big on taxes, aside from those that keep our schools running. This one in particular gauls him, though, because it’s regressive. That’s a polite way of saying that it disproportionately impacts the poor.

Think about it this way: $20 worth of food at Cook Out or Sheetz is the same for everyone, from local billionaire Roy Carroll to someone experiencing homelessness. But a 1 percent tax is a larger percentage of the homeless person’s income, which means they’re bearing a supersized load.

Bearing it, mind you, so someone else can enjoy Cats or Kountry Wayne.  

Conrad, who stepped down from the board in December, was close to the late Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, a civil rights activist and unabashed liberal. They were an unlikely duo — like US Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who enjoyed each other’s company if not their written opinions.

Coleman strongly believed regressive taxes punish the poor. And Conrad believes Coleman.

I can already feel the eyerolls from Greensboro’s booster class: “A 1 percent tax on prepared foods is such a small price to pay for amenities like the Tanger Center, which gives our community an edge on economic development decisions.”

Fair enough. Tanger is a great space, and locals clearly are enthralled. But what’s one person’s “tax on prepared foods to bring more jobs to the area” is another’s “forcing the underprivileged to subsidize ‘Hamilton’ tickets.”

The people behind this grand scheme aren’t heartless; they want what’s best for Guilford County. But they’re not poor, and most of them never have been. They likely don’t realize that for the economically disadvantaged, prepared foods aren’t an indulgence but a way of life. Fast food is convenient, calorie-dense (I didn’t say nutritious) and in many cases cheaper than homemade meals. Think I’m wrong? Order $20 off McDonald’s dollar menu, then try to match it — calorie for calorie — with $20 worth of store-bought ingredients. 

Conrad worries most about the working poor, like the person who has an hour between part-time jobs and needs a quick bite. Will a 1 percent tax prevent them from swinging through the Burger King drive-thru? Unlikely. But this tax would be just another thing separating them from their money, just another daily indignity associated with poverty.

He suggests adding user fees to tickets at Tanger and the coliseum’s other venues, which he’d gladly pay as a season ticket holder. If this idea of prepared food tax gains more traction, perhaps liberals and conservatives can unite around Conrad’s idea.

It would give people this politically polarized city something it sorely needs: common ground.

Margaret Moffett, a ghostwriter and freelancer who lives in Greensboro, is a former reporter and editor at the News & Record.

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