Heated debate over third B tax escalates

Kara Christensen

Kara Christensen

Have you heard the phrase “Third B” on campus lately? No, it doesn’t stand for banana, bread or brownie. But it could affect where you buy the food you eat.

On April 30, Brookings residents will vote on the much-debated “Third B” sales tax on prepared foods and ticket sales.

Brookings residents now pay an extra penny sales tax on the first two B’s: bed and booze. The proposed 1 percent sales tax increase would add “board,” or prepared foods.

Brookings City Council members unanimously approved the tax increase at their March 25 meeting. SDSU’s Students’ Association unanimously approved a resolution opposing the tax at its April 1 meeting. Tension between the two groups over how the money would be spent increased at the April 8 City Council meeting.

The proposed increase affects residents on and off campus equally when they choose to eat at a restaurant or buy a ticket to a movie or concert. The tax would not affect university and high school ticket sales.

SA members are concerned because the tax would add approximately $6.66 to a semester meal plan, which students living in the residence halls must buy. Total tax revenue from SDSU meal plans would be about $36,000 per semester.

For an on-campus student’s budget, the meal plan replaces buying food at a grocery store, Ben Solomon, SA vice-president, told the City Council Monday night. Students don’t have a choice, he said.

“The Student Union is their living room and that is their home cooked meal,” Solomon said.

City officials say Brookings needs the estimated $260,000 per year from the proposed tax to effectively compete with nearby cities to host special events. State law says the money has to be used to promote the city.

Negotiations between the SA and the city council once included the possibility of a written agreement in which the university would get the tax money from student meal plans.

SA Senators Kelly Bosma, Mike Whitford and Eric Erickson said they are upset because this possibility is no longer an option.

City Manager Michael Williams said last month that the city doles out money in an annual process, not in specific agreements with the groups it funds. However, he was not against SDSU receiving some money.

No policy has been approved for how the “Third B” tax revenue would be given out. At Monday’s meeting, council members discussed one proposal from Williams.

Under his plan, the Brookings Convention Visitor’s Bureau would receive the bulk of the money and establish guidelines for how to qualify for receiving funds to promote an event. SDSU groups could apply just like other Brookings groups.

Members of the SA explained the “myths” of their opposition to the proposed tax increase.

There has been confusion on campus about SA supporting the tax in order to get “kickback” money. SA members say this is not true.

Erickson, chairman of the SA’s Third B Committee, said SA originally told the Council it wouldn’t actively oppose the tax, as long as the meal plan tax money came back to SDSU through President Peggy Miller and SA.

But with negotiations off, senators are trying to rally students to vote against the tax. Erickson said about 100 students registered to vote at the SA office last week.

He encouraged students to register to vote in Brookings county.

“The stuff here is more important than the stuff going on at home that you’re only there a couple of months for,” Erickson said.

SA’s main concern is protecting the students, senators say, which has always been their motivation.

Erickson said SA opposes the tax on meal plans, not necessarily on taxing a meal at Burger King, for example.

City Council member Keri Weems defended the tax.

A new tax isn’t always the best solution, she said, but Brookings needs money to compete with nearby cities like Watertown and Sioux Falls. And since all other South Dakota cities charge the prepared foods tax, Brookings can’t compete on the same level without doing the same. She supports the tax as the only option.

“I think in the long run what we’re going to see returned is far more than what it’s going to do to my pocketbook,” Weems said.

She said all Brookings residents would pay the tax not just students.

Senators said part of their frustration over the “Third B” stems from their relationship with some council members.

“Keri Weems has been just terrible as far as working with us,” Erickson said. He said she treated senators like they were greedy for wanting money to come back to SDSU.

Weems said this was an unfair statement. “I certainly have never said nor would I ever say that the students are greedy,” she said.

Weems doesn’t see the SA and the City Council as opposing sides.

“That’s what people want to make it is a side issue,” she said.

Junior Charley Martinson, a new senator, said SDSU and the City Council should be helping each other.

“It’s a give-give situation,” he said. “And no one’s giving.”

The groups share Brookings, he said.

“The city of Brookings should calm down and propose a plan to show that they’re going to support us,” he said. “We could be more understanding to Brookings’ needs, too.”

At Monday night’s City Council meeting, member Doris Roden said the tax ordinance should specifically state that money from meal plans will be given back to SDSU.

Some council members were concerned that giving revenue back to SDSU from the meal plan tax would set a bad precedent.

Council Member Scott Munsterman said senior citizens eat out frequently, so they might want a break someday, too.

“I feel like we may be going down the wrong road here,” he said.

No action was taken on a revenue spending policy Monday night.

If voters approve the tax increase April 30, SA senators want to propose a bill for next year’s state Legislature that would exempt universities from the tax.