Despite a movement by disgruntled restaurant owners and operators to put the issue on the 1992 ballot, the Salt Lake County Commission did the wise and proper thing this week when it adopted a 1 percent restaurant tax to help operate the Salt Palace convention center and nearby arts facilities.
The tax, to take effect July 1, will raise an estimated $4 million per year. About $1 million will be used for upkeep of Symphony Hall, Capitol Theatre and Salt Lake Arts Center buildings, in themselves major cultural attractions.But most of the money will go toward operations and maintenance of the expanded convention center after completion of a $60 million renovation project. The Salt Palace has become too small and outdated to compete for conventions with similar-sized cities.
The Salt Palace - like most convention centers - has always suffered an operating loss, but as Commissioner Jim Bradley points out in a letter on the opposite page, the facility provides economic benefits to the community a dozen times greater than any subsidy.
Operational losses will increase next year when Larry Miller's new Utah Jazz arena opens, taking away chief tenants of the Salt Palace arena. There will be a $2.2 million drop in Salt Palace revenue. That loss, plus the expenses of a larger, more elaborate convention center, will make it hard to come anywhere near a break-even point for the facility.
The restaurant tax will put support for Salt Palace operating expenses on a more secure footing without having the county budget at risk every year. And it does it by taxing - in a minor way - an industry that benefits to some degree from the tourism, recreation and convention business.
Out-of-town visitors who patronize local eating establishments not only give their business to area restaurants, but will be paying a share of the Salt Palace operational costs in the process.
Restaurant owners and operators have vowed to collect the 65,000 signatures needed to put the tax issue on the 1992 November ballot. The goal, of course, would be to defeat the tax. Petitions seeking signatures may appear on restaurant tables in coming months.
But such opposition is short-sighted. In the first place, restaurant owners are not the ones being taxed. The money is a form of sales tax on meals and the ones who pay will be restaurant customers. Of course that will include local residents as well as visitors, but the size of the tax is no cause for alarm. The 1 percent levy amounts to a dime on a $10 meal or 2 cents on a $2 hamburger.
Such a tax isn't going to hurt anyone and certainly won't discourage people from eating out - unless restaurant owners and operators make such a major fight out of it that they cause the finances involved to seem much bigger in the public mind than they really are. And that would be a form of self-inflicted injury for restaurant owners.
Opponents of the tax do not deny the need for Salt Palace operating funds but want somebody else to foot the bill. Yet those same restaurant owners are perfectly willing to reap the benefits of convention visitors who eat in their establishments.
The 1 percent restaurant tax should be accepted for what it is - a small, easily shouldered price to pay for support of facilities that help make the Salt Lake area a better, more prosperous place for all.