Drink tax foes deliver signatures

The way Kevin Joyce sees it, Allegheny County voters will be able to have their booze and drink it, too.

Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation, or FACT, a group of restaurateurs and bar owners, delivered a pile of signatures to the county board of elections yesterday to get its referendum to drastically reduce the drink tax on the ballot in November.

If it is certified, it likely will be next to one written by County Council that asks: "Shall the county enact an ordinance to increase real estate taxes in order to repeal the alcoholic drink tax?"

Mr. Joyce said it's not an either/or question, and voters should vote for a 0.5 percent drink tax -- down from the current 10 percent -- and against hiking property taxes.

This would force council, said the restaurateur and FACT board member, to find another way to come up with the $30 million needed for the county's contribution to the Port Authority.

County Chief Executive Dan Onorato has said that without the drink tax revenue, property taxes would have to be raised as much as 25 percent to balance the budget.

Mr. Onorato signed off on council's referendum question last week, while FACT gathered more than double the 23,006 signatures needed to get its measure on the ballot. The board of elections has two weeks to review and certify the referenda.

Both sides have threatened to challenge the other's referendum in court.

Kevin Evanto, spokesman for Mr. Onorato, said he expects a legal challenge based on wording in the administrative code barring a referendum based on "the fixing of the subjects of taxation."

"I doubt there will be any lack of people willing to challenge this," he said, declining to reveal whether Mr. Onorato would be challenging it himself.

FACT attorney Cris Hoel said that his group's referendum doesn't involve the subject of taxation, only the rate, so it would pass muster.

And though Mr. Joyce pointed out legal questions with the council ballot measure, Mr. Hoel said he doesn't anticipate a challenge from his end.

"When the chips need to be put on the table, people would rethink the wisdom of filing long-shot legal claims that are likely to anger the voters," Mr. Hoel said.

Council President Rich Fitzgerald said Monday that if council's measure fails and FACT's succeeds, it would violate the county's home rule charter by creating an unbalanced budget. Mr. Fitzgerald said the matter would go to court, and he expected the end result would be higher property taxes -- even if voters had just rejected such a notion.

Mr. Joyce scoffed at the idea of going to court after the vote, calling it "an 'Alice in Wonderland' theory."

Staff writer Mark Belko contributed. Daniel Malloy can be reached at dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731.


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