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The referendum voters should get

Back in June, when five Democratic Mecklenburg County commissioners approved a November referendum for a quarter penny sales tax hike, some important folks around the county were stunned. Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan, for one, read about it in the next morning’s Charlotte Observer. “We were surprised by that,” he told the editorial board last week.

Commissioners, of course, aren’t required to get everyone’s or anyone’s permission before bringing such a tax hike before voters. But neglecting to do so has resulted in a referendum that lacks precision, focus and the kind of consensus it needs to have a good chance of passing in November.

The latter became clear when the Chamber released a statement Tuesday that displayed some surprising ambivalence about the referendum. The Chamber didn’t say it was opposing the measure, but it didn’t say it was supporting it, either. That’s unusual, because the Chamber is a reliable cheerleader for reasonable city and county bonds and tax increases.

This time, however, the Chamber and others are concerned that commissioners didn’t talk to leaders about Mecklenburg’s biggest priorities before moving forward. Yes, money for teachers, the arts and libraries is important, but the city and county also have critical infrastructure and transportation needs. Tax hikes are something to be used sparingly – and therefore with thoughtful purpose. That didn’t happen this time.

Another concern: Will voters understand how the money will be spent? The referendum resolution was clumsy and imprecise, promising that 80 percent of the tax hike’s proceeds would go toward “insuring competitive salaries for teachers and CMS salaried support personnel and supplementing the compensation for hourly paid employees of CMS.” What’s “competitive”? What does “supplementing” involve? We’re not sure, and the sections spelling out allocation to the arts, libraries and Central Piedmont Community College are also vague.

Further complicating matters is that Gov. Pat McCrory has now signed a budget that increases teacher salaries an average of about 5.5 percent. Mecklenburg voters already might have questioned why a permanent sales tax hike was needed for what might be only a temporary teacher salary deficiency. Now they will wonder how much of a need there even is.

We recommend that commissioners try again. Cancel this referendum. Go back to all the leaders who should have been consulted the first time around. Determine what Mecklenburg needs most, or if it needs a sales tax hike at all right now.

Commissioners chair Trevor Fuller has resisted this course, citing a risk that Republicans in Raleigh could revive a bill this month that would ban all sales tax hikes in Mecklenburg after November. Perhaps, but voters deserve a more thoughtful and less ambiguous referendum than the one they’ll see in November.

Michael Dickerson, director of the Mecklenburg Board of Elections, has told commissioners they would need to pull the referendum sometime this week before the ballot goes to the printer. He told the editorial board that Friday is his drop-dead deadline. Commissioners should call a special meeting this week. Let’s start over and get it right.

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