July 4, 2014

Debate heats up over sales tax hike

Referendum would increase CMS teacher pay by adding a quarter-cent per dollar spent.

Mecklenburg County commissioner Dumont Clarke may be running unopposed for an eighth term to represent District 4, but don’t expect him to be missing from the campaign circuit this fall.

Clarke, the board’s vice chairman, plans to go wherever he can to build support for a referendum on the November ballot to raise the county’s sales tax by a quarter-penny, largely to raise pay for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees.

“It’s a critical issue, so I’ll be supporting it in any way I can, wherever I can,” said Clarke, who co-sponsored the referendum effort with board Chair Trevor Fuller. “Mecklenburg County has a long history of supplementing the salaries paid by the state of North Carolina to its teachers.

“We believe it’s the state’s obligation to raise teacher pay, but we want to make sure we can attract the best and brightest teachers with a salary that will bring them here – and keep them here.”

State legislators have yet to agree on a teacher pay raise as their legislative session winds down.

Placing the referendum on the ballot won 5-4 support, with five of the board’s six Democrats voting yes. Democrat Pat Cotham and the board’s three Republicans voted against the measure.

Clarke and Fuller say an extra quarter-penny on the sales tax – or an added penny for every $4 spent in Mecklenburg – could generate as much as $35 million. Of that, 80 percent would go to supplementing salaries of CMS 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.

Twice last week, Fuller made a public pitch to pass the measure.

He framed it as a “clear and present” issue, with salaries for N.C. teachers ranking 48th in the country .

“We are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to our educational system, and we find ourselves compensating our teachers at the bottom of the pack in the country,” Fuller told members of the Rotary Club of Charlotte. “We find ourselves losing teachers to other jurisdictions because we don’t compensate them properly.”

He said the issue will define “who we are as a community. When we say we support education, do we back those words with action? That is before us.”

Fuller said the county has two other options to supplement teacher pay: It can raise the property tax rate by 3-4 cents to collect the same amount, or cut services by $35 million.

“I don’t think there is an appetite for either one of those options,” he said. “We believe that this is the only viable and sustainable option.”

There’s no certainty it will pass. In 2007, state legislators gave counties the authority to levy a quarter-cent sales tax if voters approved it in a referendum. Since then, of the 92 referendums introduced in 59 counties, 27 were approved, according to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.

In Orange County, a sales tax referendum lost in 2010, said CFO Clarence Grier, also the county’s assistant manager.

“The message presented to the public wasn’t clear,” Grier said. “We heard over and over that the public thought it was a quarter of a dollar – not cent. The residents also heard taxes and increase, and they thought it was property taxes – not the sales tax. ”

So Orange County commissioners put the referendum back on the ballot in 2011. They spent $25,000 on a TV and radio ad campaign making clear the extra quarter-cent would be used for school capital projects. It won the second time.

Fuller said a campaign hasn’t been planned.

“I do think it’s important to reach as many people as possible since there are some who have questions about it,” he said

Cotham and the Republicans said the tax would burden poor and middle-class residents – and would depend on the economy’s health. Cotham said the county couldn’t start collecting the tax until April 2015 and “teachers need help now.”

She said she won’t aggressively campaign against the sales tax, but will bring it up as “an example of poor leadership.”

Mecklenburg’s sales tax is already among the highest in the state at 7.25 percent. It includes a special half-cent sales tax for mass transit that’s been levied since the 1980s. There is also a special countywide penny sales tax on prepared food and beverages and a tax on hotel rooms. The proceeds of both go to tourism.

Teachers will likely support the November referendum. Mecklenburg’s two largest teacher groups – Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators and the Classroom Teachers Association – will support it.

CPCC President Tony Zeiss called the proposal “reasonable.” Teacher salaries at N.C. community colleges rank 42nd in the country, he said.

“I am always for teachers,” Zeiss said. “I would rather see the state raise the pay because they have the statutory responsibility. But if they won’t, someone has to do it.”

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.

The Charlotte Chamber has yet to take a position, said Natalie English, senior vice president for public policy.

“We unequivocally agree that teachers aren’t paid enough, and we will do whatever we can to increase pay,” English said. “But we are still gathering information from groups on the impact the sales tax would have.”

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