Buying cigarettes in the town of Amherst soon will become a nickel less expensive than purchasing the product in Amherst County.
Amherst Town Council voted July 14 to enact a 22-cent tax on cigarettes, which is below the 27-cent cigarette tax the Amherst County Board of Supervisors recently passed. Both taxes become effective Oct. 1.
Town officials considered a tax on cigarettes in recent years but balked at the idea until recently when county officials decided to implement the tax following a state law provision giving counties the ability to tax smokers as cities and towns do. Council members said if a cigarette tax was coming into the town limits anyway though a county tax they felt the town government should get the revenue for town services rather the county.
Town residents will not be double taxed and the county’s tax will not be within the town limits, Town Manager Sara Carter has said. According to a recent staff report before council, the county favored a 27-cent rate in both the town and the county.
Council members recently discussed having a lower rate as an incentive for customers to shop more in town. Tracie Morgan, treasurer and office manager of the town’s finance staff, asked council when considering lowering the rate to be mindful of the extra work the new tax will have on town workers to implement and oversee.
Morgan said she and Jane Irby, the county’s commissioner of the revenue, have corresponded regularly on the new tax for each jurisdiction.
“It’s a learning process for both of us,” Morgan said. “It’s not easy and it’s time consuming.”
Mayor Dwayne Tuggle, who doesn’t vote unless to serve as a tie-breaker, said he believes a 22-cent tax rate for cigarettes is fair. Council passed that rate on a 3-0 vote with members Ken Watts and Kenneth Bunch absent.
“I don’t like having a tax period,” Councilor Janice Wheaton said. “I don’t think it’s necessary.”
She said while other localities use a tax on cigarettes as a political means of generating revenue, he hopes the council won’t bump it up in future years.
“I am not in favor of taxing the citizens,” Councilor Sharon Turner said. “However, they are going to be taxed regardless, whether the county taxes them or the town taxes them. Since it’s in the town I think we should see those funds to turn around and use for the citizens of the town.”
Vice Mayor Rachel Carton said she never liked the idea of the tax to begin with and has made that well known.
“I definitely am in favor of being less than the county,” Carton said. “I would like to give the citizens as much of a break on this tax as possible since I don’t like supporting it but at the same time I’m not willing to put our staff into dire circumstances where they’re having such a workload and responsibility to take care of it that it’s a burden to the town.”
No residents spoke on the matter during a public hearing in June.
The board of supervisors voted 4-1 in October, with member David Pugh opposed, to enact the tax with revenues targeted to shore up money for future capital improvement projects spending.
In emails sent to the board last fall, several owners and operators of county stores, plus the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, opposed the new tax they said they fear will be harmful to business.
Anthony Belcher, general manager of an Exxon 76 gas station in Madison Heights, said during a public hearing supervisors held on the measure the tax is a major concern for the business, which counts cigarettes, beer and gas as among its top-selling products.
“The tax scares us,” Belcher told supervisors in October.