CUMBERLAND — Roger Savini may have been boasting when he said he could drive a golf ball into Massachusetts from his Woonsocket restaurant, but the hyperbole made a point.
His restaurant is so close to both Bellingham and Blackstone that diners — and especially his lucrative banquet business — could easily bypass his Rathbun Street business to avoid the extra 2 percent tax Gov. Lincoln Chafee wants to tack onto restaurant meals and beverages.
Savini told The Times he has already taken calls from people who want to book weddings later this summer who want him to promise to honor the 8 percent tax currently in place, even if the General Assembly agrees with Chafee to bring the total tax on a restaurant tab in Rhode Island to 10 percent.
The proprietor of Savini’s was one of about 100 restaurant owners, managers and employees who packed into a room at Angelo’s Palace Pizza Monday to start plotting strategy to defeat the governors 2 percent tax idea. Restaurants from Burrillville to Westerly were represented, dining establishments that ranged from those featuring white linen tablecloths, to family eateries and pizza parlors to coffee shops, all joining forces against what they perceive as a common threat to their livelihoods.
“We are going to run this like a campaign,” declared Dale Venturini, president of the RI Hospitality Association. “I have been in my job for 23 years and this is the biggest outcry I have heard.”
A total tax of 10 percent, Venturini said, could become a “psychological barrier” that sends people to out-of-state restaurants or convinces them to stay home to eat.
Venturini said the hospitality association would be providing restaurant owners with placards to put on their tables, petitions for customers to sign opposing the tax and social media sites to get the message out to legislators that “this is not a good thing.”
But she also drilled in the point that direct action would be necessary on the part of restaurant owners and employees. She said they would have to call, write and e-mail their state legislators, those that represent where their business are located as well as their home representatives; write letters to the editors of their local newspapers and, perhaps most importantly, show up in person for legislative budget hearings later this year.
Legislators who attended the meeting, such as Lincoln Rep. Rene Menard, Cumberland Rep. James McLaughlin, Woonsocket Sen. Roger Picard and Cranston Sen. Joshua Miller, himself a restaurant owner, all pledged to oppose the tax when it comes up as part of the governor’s 2013 budget. McLaughlin opined that “the governor is out of touch with reality.”
Chafee hopes to raise about $38 million from the tax, which he has pegged to fully fund the second-year phase-in of the new school funding formula with an additional $11 million to help schools in distressed communities.
Leonidas Raptakis, a former state senator and owner of Coventry’s Venus Pizza predicted the tax would “scare away” customers from Ocean State eateries. “People in East Providence will go to Seekonk, people in Pawtucket will go to Attleboro, people in Westerly will go to Pawcatuck, Conn. “We should be demanding that the tax be rolled back to 7 percent,” he said.
Currently the 7 percent state sales tax on meals is supplemented with a 1 percent tax that goes to the city or town where the restaurant is located. Venturini said when that additional 1 percent tax passed in 2003, it was ostensibly to lower property taxes. When she asked the assemblage if their property taxes had lowered, she was answered with laughter.
Raptakis told his colleagues that whenever legislators get 10 or 15 calls on a given subject, they pay attention.
Christine Kitsilis, who hosted the first of what will likely be a series of these strategy sessions, said she is “insulted” when people say the extra tax is just a few pennies. “We work hard for our pennies,” she said. “My customers work hard for their pennies. Those pennies keep us alive.”
“Ultimately, people are going to stop coming,” said Michelle Jordan, manager of Davenport’s Restaurant in Cumberland. “People aren’t required to go out to eat, we could lose business altogether. Not that people are tipping less or are buying a less expensive meal, they could not come at all, that is the worst possible outcome, that is the biggest fear. We have to make it so they still want to go out to eat.”
Lynn Jennings, who last year founded RI Salons United to successfully fight a proposal to tax a large number of services currently exempt, told the restaurant owners, “don’t think your customers won’t want to sign the petitions, because they will.”
She also encouraged the use of social media, saying “Facebook is how my whole movement started”