Over the last few weeks, voters have faced a deluge of information aimed at swaying them for or against a quarter-cent sales tax hike in Mecklenburg County. The controversial measure would bring an additional $50 million annually to fund the arts, education, and parks in the region.
Zoom out: In 2007, the North Carolina legislature voted to allow each of the 100 counties to pass its own quarter-cent sales tax increase through a local referendum. The increase amounts to 25 cents for every $100 spent.
So far, 42 counties have passed their tax hikes; each county decides where the new revenue will be spent.
In early July, Mecklenburg County commissioners voted 7-2 to put the referendum on the November 5 ballot. This would raise the county’s sales tax to 7.5 percent from its existing 7.25 percent.
The additional $50 million in revenue would be split four ways:
- Arts and culture: $22.5 million
- Parks and greenways: $17 million
- Education: $8 million
- Arts and parks projects for smaller towns outside of Charlotte: $2.5 million
Why the arts: The biggest chunk of the $50 million would go to the Arts & Science Council, a nonprofit that raises and distributes funds through grants to support arts and cultural organizations throughout the region. Major recipients of the ASC funding include the Mint Museum, Charlotte Ballet, Opera Carolina, and the Levine Museum of the New South.
Arts organizations big and small are already jockeying to receive some of the money, if it comes.
The ASC began its push for the sales-tax increase earlier this year amid concerns over insufficient funding.
Local arts funding is at a “crisis point,” ASC chairwoman Valecia McDowell told the Charlotte Observer this summer. Workplace giving, once the biggest sources of ASC’s funding, fell to $5 million last year, down from $11.5 million in 2007, she told the paper.
District 5 county commissioner Susan Harden, a Democrat, is at the front of the campaign to rally voters in support the additional funds.
“An investment in the cultural sector returns so much in terms of creating a community where creatives want to live,” Harden told the Agenda. “And it provides that economic infrastructure that’s so critical for retaining and attracting jobs in our community.”
This weekend, the group in favor of the sales tax hike took out a print ad in the Observer that included the names of those in support of the tax hike. But at least two people said their names were mistakenly added to the list without their permission.
“We have corrected all known parties who have voiced concern(s) and will continue to do so,” the group, Partnership For a Better Mecklenburg, told WSOC’s Joe Bruno.
The opposition: Unlike last year’s city-wide referendum to put $50 million toward affordable housing, this increase is hardly a guarantee.
There are opponents, of course, from traditionally conservative backgrounds who oppose tax hikes in any form. But there are also those from more liberal backgrounds who say that any sales-tax hike is regressive, that it hits low-income residents the hardest because they can least afford it.
There are those who point to the fact that a sales-tax hike comes on the heels of the county’s recent property revaluation, which resulted in higher taxes for roughly 65 percent of residents.
Democrat Pat Cotham, an at-large county commissioner, said she’s “adamantly against” the sales-tax hike for several reasons, including its timing right after the revaluation. “It’s very insensitive to the community,” Cotham said.
Then there are those who would usually vote in favor of supporting things like arts, but are uncomfortable with how the revenue from the tax increase would be distributed.
Last month, county commissioners voted 7-2 to approve a resolution spelling out guidelines of the governance of the ASC and the sales tax funding.
The ASC’s board will comprise an equal number of county and city elected officials, as well as appointees from southern and northern towns, an equal number of citizens appointed by the county and city, and private-sector representatives. The county says it will enter into annual contracts with the new ASC to manage distribution of the sales-tax proceeds. The contract will include “success measures” and will require an annual report on the group’s progress.
It is still unclear, however, whether commissioners or the ASC board will decide which artists and arts groups receive funding, and how much each group gets.
Cotham said told the Agenda that she could not vote for something that’s so “nebulous and loosey-goosey.”
“I kept saying the cake is not ready for the oven,” Cotham said. “We needed to do more work on the front end.”
A group called Mecklenburg Tax Alliance, started by former Republican county commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, who lost his seat to Harden 51-49 last November, is a “small and loosely organized coalition of people who are opposed to (the tax hike) for any reason,” Ridenhour said.
Over the last several weeks, the group has been conducting phone banks and hosting information sessions.
Mecklenburg County already has a number of competing priorities, from affordable housing to transit, Ridenhour said. “There are legitimate reasons for opposing the sales-tax hike,” he said. “It’s not because we hate the arts or don’t like live music.”
How other counties and cities have used new sales-tax revenue: In Gaston County, which passed its quarter-cent increase last year, the funds are expected to help pay down pay down debt on a $250 million school bond referendum. In the mountains of Jackson County, voters approved the quarter-cent hike in 2016 for “educational purposes,” including the construction of a new health sciences building at Southwestern Community College.
This isn’t the first time Mecklenburg County has tried to participate in the hike. In 2014, commissioners proposed raising the rate to support Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Central Piedmont Community College, the library system and the ASC. Voters rejected it, 61 percent to 39 percent.
In other cities, a sales-tax increase intended to support the arts has been successful.
In September, Pittsburgh celebrated the 25th anniversary of its 1 percent county sales tax increase, called the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD) tax. The RAD tax so far has raised nearly $4 billion to support 104 local groups, including $623 million for libraries and $582 million for parks and trails, according to the local news network Next Pittsburgh.
What about the portion for education, parks, and towns? Harden says one of the biggest misunderstandings floating around is that the tax is exclusively for arts funding.
There are areas of critical need outside the arts that would benefit, Harden said. Education funds will support teacher assistants, school psychologists and social workers, for instance. Park funding would support added programs at recreational facilities. Part of the arts funding would go toward returning field trips to museums for CMS students, Harden added. The district did away with field trips during the recession.
“The fact of the matter is there are going to be lots of beneficiaries of this,” Harden said. “All of that is kind of getting lost.”
The marketing blitz by supporters: Those in favor of the sales-tax increase say it will help make the county more competitive by funding areas in need.
A number of businesses and corporate groups have lined up in support of the measure, including the Carolina Panthers, the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council and the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance.
“What this does is for creatives it really puts the ‘we want you here’ sign over the door. (It’s a) ‘we’re hiring’ type of thing,” Harden said. “It really positions us to be the cultural center of the South.”