After surviving roadblocks in the legislature and at home, a Nov. 4 referendum to raise the local sales tax by a quarter-cent primarily to raise teacher pay will get its ultimate test – from Mecklenburg County voters.
Eighty percent of the generated revenue from the tax would go to increase pay for Charlotte-Mecklenburg employees. The new revenues would also boost pay for faculty members at Central Piedmont Community College and help programs at the Arts & Science Council and Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
The referendum, placed on the ballot in June by a narrow 5-4 vote of Mecklenburg County commissioners, caught many groups and state legislators off guard. Some, such as the Charlotte Chamber, were critical that they weren’t consulted before the effort was made public.
Ultimately the chamber’s executive committee endorsed the effort.
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Commission Chairman Trevor Fuller and Vice Chairman Dumont Clarke championed the referendum, concerned that CMS had lost about 1,000 teachers before the current school year – and that state legislators weren’t going to make teacher pay competitive enough with other states and counties. Legislators did raise teacher pay by an average 7 percent, but only newer teachers saw their pay rise significantly, some as high as 18 percent. Many veteran teachers barely saw an increase, some as little as 0.3 percent.
Fuller and Clarke quietly built a majority of five Democrats to get the referendum on the ballot.
An effort to cap local sales taxes in each county nearly derailed the Mecklenburg referendum – until it died in the N.C. House. Throughout the potential roadblocks, Fuller especially remained steadfast that increasing the sales tax was the only way to raise teacher pay. Short of that, he said, commissioners had two other options: raising property taxes or cutting services.
He felt there was no appetite on the board for either of the two options.
‘Not the right tool’
Little organized opposition for the referendum has built, except for some criticism from the conservative group CAUTION.
Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, one of three Republicans who voted against the referendum, continues to be a critic, saying “it’s not the right tool for the job.”
Last week, he continued his criticism of the process to get the referendum on the ballot. “It was planned in a silo without talking to anyone who would be affected,” he said.
Ridenhour said the effort is not a permanent solution to keeping teacher salaries competitive.
“The sales tax is projected to raise $28 million for teacher increases,” he said. “Let’s say that raises teacher X’s salary from $40,000 to $42,000. Teacher X will continue to make $42,000 every year. However, what will we do in two or three years when it is time to raise Teacher X’s salary from $42,000 to $44,000? We will need a new source of tax dollars to do that.”
He said the tax would be regressive and hurt the poor and middle class.
Yet supporters say that’s why food, gasoline and prescription drugs would be exempt from the tax. “People won’t be taxed on the most basic needs,” said Marinn Begel, who is coordinating the grass-roots campaign Together4Meck to get the referendum passed.
Some point out that a portion of revenues would come from people who live outside Mecklenburg County. That has not been projected for Mecklenburg. But a study done for Guilford County in 2009 showed that 30 to 40 percent of sales tax revenues came from people visiting that county, said Guilford County school board Chairman Alan Duncan.
“It would not surprise me if it was more in Mecklenburg,” Duncan said. “You have so much more to draw people in.”
Last month, Together4Meck began to educate voters how raising the local sales tax by a quarter-cent (or 25 cents per $100) would provide a boost to education and enhance the arts in Mecklenburg. They’ve thrown up yard signs all over the city with their photos of a copper Lincoln head penny, one-quarter colored in green.
The supporters include: the boards of the four recipients, the chamber, the education advocacy nonprofit MeckEd, the Black Political Caucus, the Mecklenburg PTA Council, Council for Children’s Rights and Community School of the Arts.
“The more we educate people on what this referendum is about and the organizations it will help, the more we see the light go on,” Begel said. “We have a responsibility to support and fund these organizations that drive economic development.”