RICHMOND -- The debate over whether to impose steep taxes on sugary drink sales in the city has bubbled over with rising intensity in recent days as community leaders and influential organizations take sides on the divisive issue.
The Black Women Organized for Political Action on July 25 ended weeks of speculation by coming out against the tax, which would levy a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sales of all beverages containing added sugar.
There is a nonbinding companion measure advising the city to use proceeds from the tax, estimated at $2 million to $8 million annually, for education and recreational programs aimed at reducing obesity among local kids. Both will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.
"We don't believe a regressive tax to the poorest residents of Richmond is the right approach," said Kathleen Sullivan, president of BWOPA's Richmond chapter.
Two days later, Blacks, Mobilizing, Organizing and Educating Richmond came out in favor of the tax, called the Fit for Life campaign by supporters.
"These ballot measures are part of the community's response to the serious health challenges facing our youth," said B-MOER spokeswoman Nicole Valentino.
Then on Saturday, the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, a group funded by the powerful American Beverage Association, held a townhall-style meeting in a city recreation hall.
More than 80 people turned out and were served free barbecue from local favorite C.J.'s Barbecue
Several staff members were on hand from the San Francisco-based consulting firm hired by the ABA to organize against the tax in Richmond.
Panelists at the meeting, including black Councilmen Corky Booze and Nat Bates, hit repeatedly on what they regard as the racial dynamic of the tax. Opponents of the measure portray the tax as an overreach by mostly white progressives in the city and say it will bleed money from the poorest communities and small businesses while doing little to curb consumption.
"The sponsors of this tax are dividing our city; this is division upon our people," said Joe Fisher, treasurer of the Black American Political Action Committee, an opponent to the tax since it was first proposed by Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a former cardiologist who is white.
"This has become a national issue, and we must unify against this tax," Fisher said.
The meeting offered a stark contrast to gatherings and outreaches by tax proponents, led by the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a volunteer political coalition that has tilted the power balance in Richmond away from Chevron Corp., the Chamber of Commerce and other commercial interests.
Although RPA leaders and subgroups -- B-MOER was founded by Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, an RPA member -- stress Richmond's 52 percent childhood obesity rate and university studies backing their approach, opponents bristle that the tax is regressive and paternalistic in its focus on the city's large black and Latino populations.
"It's almost insulting," Sullivan said at Saturday's meeting, "as though we need to be taxed because we have no self-control."
Valentino, who works in Mayor Gayle McLaughlin's office, said the situation demands to be addressed in part through public policy.
"Diabetes, cardiovascular disease and asthma are rampant diseases in our community, and we must do something to start saving the children now," Valentino said.
The battle for votes in Richmond is intensifying as the debate over sugary drinks and public health has gone national. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing for a ban on sales of sodas larger than 16 ounces. In El Monte, a Los Angeles area suburb, the City Council last week became the second in the state to approve a November ballot measure proposing a 1-cent-per-ounce tax, modeled after Richmond's.
Richmond tax proponents insist that proceeds will be used solely for health and anti-obesity programs. But El Monte leaders tout their tax as a chance to curb soda consumption and help close a budget deficit. Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers