Club soda officially declared tax-free in Seattle–7 days late

Grocery receipt 2I am now the recipient of an official government declaration that club soda is exempt from the Washington State sales tax. The edict from the state Department of Revenue (DOR) came well after the time frame set forth on the agency’s own website for responding to such questions. It arrived more than a week after the supermarket that sold me the six bottles confessed error in assessing me an additional 68 cents. But at least the decision showed up.

To recap: I bought the two-liter bottles of club soda at my neighborhood Albertsons. Looking later at the receipt, I discovered that I had been hit with the sales tax (in Seattle, 9.5%, the highest among major U.S. cities). Perceiving this levy as a mistake–most edible groceries are exempt, here and in all the other places I lived before becoming New To Seattle–I did some local research.  Then by email I queried both Albertsons and DOR.

Albertsons got back to me in four business days, admitted the mistake and refunded the grand overcharge plus another $5 for my efforts. But even though I used DOR’s “Quick Question” portal, which states, “You can generally expect a response within two business days,” it took the state more than four times as long–nine business days–to reply.

For the record, here is the complete text of my February 4 email to DOR:

My supermarket in Seattle assesses the Washington State sales tax on two-liter bottles of club soda but not two-liter bottles of seltzer water. Both products consist of unsweetened, unflavored, unsalted water to which carbonation has been artificially added, and which is the only additive. Washington Administrative Code 458-20-244 appears to exempt both products from the sales tax. So does your department’s Special Notice on Taxability of Soft Drinks, originally published April 16, 2004, and updated October 31, 2012. Please advise as to whether there is a basis under Washington State law for the differing tax treatment.

And for the record, here is the text of the answer that finally appeared in my email inbox on February 15, a message (from a DOR email account styled “RulingsDOR”) signed in the name of one T. Greene.

Response

Most seltzer water and club sodas are not subject to sales tax, because they do not contain sweeteners. For more information, see our Special Notice on the Taxability of Soft Drinks.

If you believe sales tax was paid in error, you should first request a refund from the store. It may be helpful to provide them with a copy of our response. If the store refuses your request, you may request a refund directly from the Department.

If you have further questions, please write again.

For me, there are two takeaways here. First, there is no real difference between club soda and seltzer water so long as they are unsweetened. And second, in Olympia a “Quick Question” doesn’t always generate a “Quick Answer.”

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