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Charlotte Chamber fails to support tax referendum

Poll

Would you support a 1/4-cent increase in the Mecklenburg sales tax?

After surviving a roadblock from state legislators, Mecklenburg County’s sales tax referendum hit another bump Tuesday when the Charlotte Chamber issued a statement that failed to support the effort.

The statement said the Chamber backs more money for education, libraries and the arts. But the group said “a more deliberative dialogue needs to take place in order to create consensus around any specific funding option.”

A Chamber spokeswoman declined to clarify the statement, and it’s unclear whether the group will openly oppose the referendum.

In June, Mecklenburg commissioners voted 5-4 to put a referendum on the November ballot that would raise the local sales tax rate by a quarter-cent.

Of the revenue from the new tax, 80 percent would go to supplementing salaries of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees, 7.5 percent to Central Piedmont Community College for faculty salaries, another 7.5 percent to the Arts & Science Council and 5 percent to public libraries.

Board Chairman Trevor Fuller said he’d hoped to get the Chamber’s support on the referendum. But without the support of the group, or another major group to pay for a campaign, the referendum may come down to a grassroots effort.

“Over time, you will see groups and people get out in front on this effort,” he said.

Commissioner George Dunlap, who voted to put the referendum on the ballot, said he’s not concerned that the Chamber isn’t offering support. “This is about the people of Mecklenburg County, not about the Chamber,” he said.

The referendum was nearly quashed before it reached the ballot. N.C. senators had amended a House bill that would have capped local sales tax rates statewide at 2.5 cents. Since Mecklenburg already levies that amount, another quarter-penny would have pushed it over the cap.

But a compromise ultimately allowed Mecklenburg to go ahead with the referendum and boost the sales tax rate to 2.75 cents if voters approve.

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, one of three Republicans who voted against putting the referendum on the ballot, said he heard from a Chamber official Tuesday that the group planned to support a $146 million Charlotte bond referendum in November. “But they weren’t going to carry the football on the sales tax referendum,” Ridenhour said.

In the past, the Chamber has supported many referendums, helping lead the campaign for some.

Since Tuesday was the last day commissioners could alter or pull the referendum, Ridenhour said he called Fuller to request a discussion of the matter at the commissioners’ Tuesday meeting.

“I’ve heard other commissioners say the Chamber’s silence says a lot over the past month,” Ridenhour said. “No major group has come forward to support the referendum, and I thought it would be doing a disservice to teachers, the arts and libraries if this board put on a half-hearted campaign to get the referendum approved.”

To date, American Airlines is the only company publicly opposing the referendum, concerned an extra quarter-cent could cost the airline $500,000 in fuel and parts. American operates its second-largest hub at Charlotte Douglas International Airport under the US Airways banner.

Ridenhour said he suggested to Fuller that the board could take up the referendum question next year, or find money from property tax revenues to raise teacher pay.

Yet Fuller said he’d heard some commissioners had been asked by the Chamber to pull the referendum. But he’s steadfast about going through with it in November.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Fuller said. “We have this one opportunity to take advantage of this tool and I’m not in favor of retreating after we’ve come this far.”

Fuller said the option is a sustainable way to keep teacher pay competitive and to ward off other states or school districts from luring teachers away with promises of better pay.

The only two other options, Fuller said, are raising property rates or cutting services.

“I don’t think those are real options,” he said. “We have a one-time chance to do this. If we didn’t go after this added revenue … that would be doing a greater disservice not only to the community, but a disservice to democracy.”

Tuesday, the board heard from four leaders of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Association of Educators, all praising the five Democrats who put the referendum on the ballot.

“You have straight-forwardly put that in the hands of the voters to determine whether educators deserve a raise ...” said Charlie Smith, a history teacher at Independence High and the group’s president.

In other action, commissioners:

• Voted 8-1 to set a Sept. 2 public hearing for an ordinance that would ban smoking from the grounds of government buildings and all tobacco use from parks, greenways and county-own golf courses. The board will vote on the ordinance at its Sept. 17 meeting.

• Unanimously voted to amend an agreement with Levine Properties concerning a $700 million First Ward mixed-use development. They agreed to extend the completion deadline of First Ward Park to the end of 2015 and a 10th Street parking deck to July 1, 2016.

• Voted 8-1 to approve $2.8 million in tax incentives to Sealed Air Corp., the maker of Bubble Wrap that is moving its headquarters to Charlotte.

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