In a move that would raise the city’s revenue, City Council President Bill Linehan presented a proposed tax on alcoholic beverages before the Committee on Government Operations at a public hearing at City Hall Monday.
The proposal, which would increase the sales tax on alcoholic beverages from 5 percent to 6.25 percent, could raise the city’s revenue $9 to $15 billion a year. This money would be used to reduce crime, improve quality of life and raise funds for substance abuse treatment programs, Linehan said to approximately 30 attendees.
“We have an enormous issue with substance abuse in the city of Boston and our government recently declared it a public health emergency,” he said. “If we want to overcome this crisis, we must provide proper services to do this. We need revenue in order to provide additional care, such as detox beds and prevention programs.”
Responding to the testimony given by community members were City Councilors Michael Flaherty, Frank Baker, Matt O’Malley, Tim McCarthy, Ayanna Pressley, Michelle Wu, Charles Yancey and Josh Zakim.
Robert Merner, superintendent of Boston Police Department’s Bureau of Investigative Services, spoke before the committee in favor of the tax. He previously worked as Commander of the Drug Control Unit and Commander of the Homicide Unit, and he said he has worked on innumerable cases involving alcohol and substance abuse.
Merner said the Drug Control Unit alone saw more than 1,850 arrests related to drugs and alcohol in 2013 and an additional 1,350 people were summoned in for drug-related crimes.
“Some of them are trying to get into treatment, but cannot,” he said. “From a resource perspective, the officers run out of options. We don’t have the option to get them into treatment.”
McCarthy, who spoke on behalf of the opposition, said the tax imposition would have a negative effect on liquor stores.
“Taxing is a very scary issue, not only as an elected official, but as a citizen,” he said. “It’s a ball that we will have trouble stopping once it gets going down the hill.”
O’Malley added to the opposition and said the city is plagued by alcohol and substance abuse and everyone must “be mindful of the fact that small businesses could lose business.”
A panel of three liquor storeowners and distributors, including Joseph Selby, owner of Kappy’s Fine Wine & Spirits, addressed the committee in opposition of the proposed tax on alcoholic beverages.
“Imposing a sales tax would discriminate against Boston retailers,” he said. “It is very hard to compete when neighboring areas are cheaper. There are approximately 20 package stores within a 20-minute drive from my location in East Boston.”
Several attendees said they want to see increased funding for substance abuse programs, but not everyone agreed that a tax is the best way to achieve this.
Tadhg Mac Liam, 23, of Brighton, said the tax proposal may not be favorable among the whole community, but will ultimately tackle the issues involved with alcohol addiction.
“In this country, alcohol is an issue,” he said. “[But] any tax is annoying if you’re on the receiving end.”
Tara Doran, 29, of South Boston and a representative of South Boston Can Reduce Underage Drinking, said she supports the tax because she sees alcohol as a gateway to other addictive drugs and behavior.
“Underage drinking is a huge issue,” she said. “That is where it all starts, that’s often the beginning of addiction and addictive behavior. We [at South Boston Can Reduce Underage Drinking] work to prevent that so we can prevent other addictions. I support this tax on alcoholic beverages because the taxes recovered will be used to fund treatment prevention programs.”
Robyn Casper, 23, of Brighton, said she believes treatment programs are necessary, but questions whether or not a tax is the right way to solve the problem.
“There is no doubt that we need more treatment programs, but the question is whether or not this is the right way to do it,” she said. “Personally, I do not know if I believe it’s fair to put that burden on the people of the city.”