Tom Charley: Philly-style tax could impact Western Pa.
I have been working in the grocery industry my entire life. I was born into it. I am fourth generation, and just had my first baby girl who could take it to the fifth generation.
These days, I am concerned about the “soda tax” (“pop tax” for those of us from the western side of the state) that has significantly impacted my colleagues in Philadelphia.
The city created the tax a few years ago, and the results have been devastating for community-owned grocery stores. This tax raises the price on more than just pop. Sports drinks, almond and soy milk, juice, and many other beverages are being taxed, too.
More than 1,200 jobs have been lost. More than $80 million in economic activity left the city. It doesn’t take an economics professor to understand why: Shoppers who were able to travel simply started traveling across the city line. And since no one wants to make two trips for groceries, they made the rest of their purchases outside the city, too. Unfortunately, shoppers who can’t travel easily, mostly families with low incomes, have had to bear the increase in cost.
One sad example shows how the tax has backfired. ShopRite opened a grocery store in Philadelphia’s Overbrook neighborhood, a lower- income section of the city that was called a food desert. Store owner Jeff Brown partnered with city and state officials for years to make it possible for residents to have convenient access to fresh, healthy food. He made a point of hiring employees from the community, and even had a special program to hire people working for a fresh start after being incarcerated. The store was celebrated all the way to Washington, D.C.: Brown attended the State of the Union address as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama, his work held up as a successful public-private partnership that others should follow.
Then the tax took effect. Within two years, the store lost 25% of its business and had to close. Over 100 employees had to find a new place to work. Residents could no longer buy fresh food there.
People may be tempted to write this off as Philadelphia politicians and residents getting what they deserve. But there is a lesson here for all of us: Every business from here to Scranton, from Erie to Philadelphia, is one vote away from a decision that could put them out of business. Any time a city or town in Pennsylvania has budget trouble, it could follow Philadelphia’s lead and invent new taxes.
My family has been in this community since the early 1900s, working on providing the best possible offering to our customers. I would be devastated if a tax like this came to our area and put us out of business.
I strongly encourage representatives in Harrisburg to support House Bill 1464, which would create a set rule for taxes on things like food, drink, medicine and anything else that goes in a buggy. Currently just two of the 29 state representatives from Allegheny and Westmoreland counties — Democrat or Republican — have signed on to co-sponsor the bill.