Elected officials cautious about government paying more for cultural sector

06/16/2014 6:00 PM

06/16/2014 6:44 PM

A proposal to raise $35 million over the next decade from government sources to support cultural affairs drew a cautious reaction Monday, a day before a referendum proposal is to go before the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.

Commissioners are expected Tuesday to approve a referendum for the November ballot that would ask voters to raise the county’s 7.25 percent sales tax by a quarter of a percentage point. Under the proposal, 10 percent of the increase would go to cultural groups through the Arts & Science Council. Of the remainder of the increase, 85 percent would go to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College for teacher raises and 5 percent would go to county libraries.

About $3 million annually could be raised by the 10 percent earmarked for the ASC, estimated Dumont Clarke, vice chairman of the commissioners.

A $35 million investment by local government to stabilize the arts scene in Charlotte was recommended this week by the Cultural Life Task Force, which has spent a year studying ways to pay for the region’s cultural sector.

A significant increase in private donations is also needed, said the report, which calls for raising at least $40 million over 10 years to invest in fundraising and marketing and $125 million more for an endowment campaign.

Balance in priorities

Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes, a Democrat, said Monday that City Council is supportive of the arts but has to balance its commitment with other priorities.

Already, the city is looking at losing $8.5 million annually beginning next year because of legislative action to replace the privilege license tax that cities collect from businesses.

Charlotte and the county dedicate 1 percent of spending on new construction to public art, Barnes noted. While some other cities provide major underwriting for cultural life, he said, other solutions must be explored as well.

“I know in a lot of other cities, local government picks it up,” Barnes said. “A lot of private philanthropic groups pick up a good bit of the spending as well. It would be very helpful if the private sector would step up more.”

City Council Democrat John Autry said Monday that he is also looking to the private sector for the bulk of arts support. “I’m still chewing on it,” he said. “I certainly wish the private sector would step up a little more, and they have a responsibility, I think.”

While he agrees culture has an impact on a city’s quality of life, he said the City Council must also focus on more pressing problems, including community safety and pedestrian safety.

“We have to balance the things,” Autry said. “If you can’t cross the street and get out of your neighborhood on foot, that also has a pretty big impact on your quality of life.”

Question of control

Republican county commissioner Bill James said approving a sales tax option for the arts – which he opposes – could put government back into the oversight business, which caused controversy in the 1990s over producing “Angels in America” in Charlotte.

“While I am opposed to the tax increase because I don’t believe that you raise taxes during a recession, it is also a problem to take public money for the arts and not expect public oversight, which the ASC doesn’t really want to do,” said James.

“Approving the sales tax will create a ticking time bomb because a large part of the public will be offended if their tax dollars are taken and then used for what is viewed as obscene or prurient. … There is a big difference between people voluntarily contributing to the arts and people being forced to contribute through a tax,” he said.

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