Charlotte Chamber leaves open sales tax endorsement

08/06/2014 6:53 PM

08/07/2014 8:34 AM

The Charlotte Chamber won’t run a campaign to pass a sales tax referendum in November, but a spokeswoman for the group said Wednesday that ultimately its executive committee could end up endorsing it.

The Chamber released a statement Tuesday that didn’t oppose or support the measure that would raise the county’s sales tax rate by a quarter-cent.

Most of it, 80 percent, would go to raise pay of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees; 7.5 percent would go to pay raises at Central Piedmont Community College and another 7.5 percent to the Arts & Science Council. The public library system would get the remaining 5 percent.

The statement said the group backs more money for teachers, the arts and libraries.

But Chamber spokeswoman Natalie Dick said the group needs more discussion with county leaders before it stakes a position on the referendum. She said Mecklenburg County commissioners didn’t consult or inform the Chamber before they voted 5-4 in June to put the referendum on the ballot.

Later, she said, they were asked to lead the campaign.

Since then, they’ve asked “repeatedly” for more discussions with commissioners, gathered input from Chamber members and met with possible the groups that would receive the funding from the added sales tax, Dick said.

“We need more information, more detailed discussion about the specific funding mechanism (the quarter-cent sales tax increase) to come to a consensus,” she said.

Before Tuesday’s county commission meeting, Chamber officials called commissioners urging them to pull the referendum so that discussion could take place. Tuesday was the last day the measure could be altered or pulled.

“Now that it is (on the ballot), we will determine a position, and it could be that the chamber’s executive committee votes to endorse a sales tax (increase),” Dick said.

Commission Vice Chair Dumont Clarke, who co-sponsored the referendum effort, said he was encouraged to hear that the Chamber’s executive committee may still vote to support the measure.

Clarke said it’s “incorrect” that commissioners haven’t talked to Chamber leadership about the sales tax initiative. He said he talked to Natalie English, the Chamber’s senior vice president for public policy, last week about the need for the quarter-cent increase. He said board Chair Trevor Fuller told him that he, too, had talked to Chamber leaders about the option. Fuller couldn’t be reach Wednesday.

“I can only speak for me, but for anybody to say we haven’t been responsive, that’s crazy,” he said. “I finally reached out directly to Natalie English.”

Clarke said he’d be glad to talk to members of the executive committee. They meet on Monday.

Historically, the Chamber has backed all referendums and put up money to run a campaign to get persuade voters to approve them, Dick said. The Chamber plans to campaign for a $146 million city of Charlotte bond referendum in November.

In 1998, the group campaigned for a half-cent sales tax increase for transit and fought an attempt to repeal it in 2007, Dick said.

CPCC President Tony Zeiss said Wednesday he’s disappointed and perplexed that the Chamber would not be fully behind the referendum.

“It means we’ll have to work harder to get the message out and let voters know that they will get a good return on their investment if they pass this referendum,” Zeiss said. “It’s basically comes down to this question: Are we satisfied that K-12 public school teachers are 48th in the national ranking in terms of pay and that community college teachers are 42nd?”

Zeiss said the college and other recipients hadn’t done much to map a strategy because the referendum was nearly derailed by a legislative bill in the N.C. Senate to cap the local sales tax at 2.5 cents. Mecklenburg’s rate was already at that limit. But a compromise allowed Mecklenburg to hold the referendum and cap the county’s rate at 2.75 cents if voters approve it.

He said he and CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison talked on Wednesday and decided they’d meet as soon as next week to begin a strategy to persuade voters to pass the measure. Last month, the library’s board passed a resolution supporting the referendum and authorized library staff to work with groups to educate voters on the issue.

“The best economic development is human development,” Zeiss said. “If we want to live well as a county, we have to educate and train well. We can’t do that if we’re losing our best teachers.”

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