City Council President Darrell L. Clarke blasted Mayor Kenney's proposed 3-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks as "ridiculous" Wednesday and said that at that rate, it is never going to pass.
He pressed Kenney's administration to take another look at a beverage-container tax, a Council alternative the mayor's office says won't raise enough revenue.
"It'll generate the revenue. It's just a matter of the rate that you want," Clarke said at a hearing at which Council was weighing the container tax. "And if it does create the revenue and we pass it, is the administration not going to do the programs because it wasn't a sugary tax? I'd think not. I'd hope not."
Kenney's spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, said she "respectfully" disagreed with Clarke's assertion that Council had no taste for a soda tax. Several members said Wednesday they needed more time to consider the options.
The hearing of Council's committee of the whole was held amid rumors that the body was poised to vote on either the soda tax or the container tax, revenue streams that would fund, among other initiatives, an expansion of prekindergarten and improvements to the city's libraries, parks, and recreation facilities.
The speculation drew scores of advocates on all sides of the debate, who packed the chambers in clusters of matching shirts and matching signs. But neither plan has garnered the nine votes needed to pass, and neither was called up for a vote, meaning the debate will likely stretch into June.
Clarke on Wednesday said that although he was not committed to a container tax, he favors the option because it has a broader tax base. He said it would not impact poor neighborhoods as harshly as the sugary-drinks tax.
The container levy, introduced by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown last week, would add 15 cents to the cost of bottled beverages of 7 ounces or larger, including soda, water, and juices. Her office estimates it can raise up to $94 million annually, with a low-end projection of $60 million to $77 million.
Kenney's administration calls the $94 million goal ambitious, and suggests that $61 million is more accurate, saying the larger projection includes a relatively high consumption rate and a low rate of consumption drop-off after the tax is implemented.
City Finance Director Rob Dubow on Wednesday said the sugary-drinks tax would be less burdensome on low-income communities because it does not tax essentials like water, and consumers who do not want to pay it could turn to beverages that are not affected.
"People have much fewer options to get around this tax," Dubow said of the container tax. "So if you're talking about impact on low-income neighborhoods, they'll have fewer choices for not paying this tax."
Dubow did confirm the accuracy of revenue projections released by Council that show a 2.5-cent-per-ounce sugary-drinks tax bringing in slightly more revenue than a 3-cent tax, because it would result in a smaller drop in consumption.
Though the Council committee did not vote on the taxes, it did pass the mayor's proposed five-year plan and a $4.1 billion capital budget for fiscal year 2017. Those items will get a first reading at Thursday's Council meeting and could be passed by Council as soon as the following week.
Council has until June 16, its last session before summer recess, to vote on the tax options.