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Closer to sales tax fighting crime

Mecklenburg County commissioners moved a step closer Wednesday night toward asking voters for a quarter-cent sales tax increase to fight crime.

By a 5-to-3 vote, commissioners declared their intent to put a tax referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot. They'll vote later to actually authorize the measure.

Wednesday's vote split along party lines, with all five Democrats voting in favor of the plan.

A quarter-cent increase would push Mecklenburg's sales tax to 7.5 percent. The current rate is already highest in the state.

County officials estimate the new tax could raise about $45 million in its first two years.

Commissioner Dumont Clarke said the tax could pay for a new jail, more assistant district attorneys and more electronic monitoring equipment, among other improvements.

He first proposed the tax last month after residents pleaded with local leaders to do more to stop the rise in violent and property crimes.

Commissioners plan to ask state lawmakers for permission to specify on the ballot that the tax would be used to fight crime. They also asked County Manager Harry Jones to come up with a system to show how much money would be brought in by the tax, and how it would be spent.

Commissioners Bill James and Dan Bishop said they didn't believe commissioners should vote on the referendum without knowing whether lawmakers would let them spend the money only on crime-fighting.

Bishop also said he thought commissioners should first let a newly formed crime task force issue recommendations.

Commissioners did not set a date on when they would bring the sales tax up for another vote, but they would need to do so by mid-September in order to get it on the fall ballot.

Other taxes voted down

N.C. lawmakers gave counties permission to seek either a quarter-cent sales tax or a land transfer tax of up to 0.4 percent as part of a deal to have the state pay for Medicaid expenses. In exchange, the counties gave up a half-cent sales tax that was used to cover the Medicaid costs.

Leaders from some counties have said the taxes offer a chance to raise money for needed local projects.

But since November, voters have struck down 30 of 37 sales tax referendums pitched by counties – including in Gaston and Lincoln – according to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.

The taxes also have been opposed by groups like the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh-based conservative think tank.

Michael Sanera, the foundation's research director and local government analyst, said Mecklenburg's tax rate has grown at a higher rate than the county's population and inflation. He criticized the use of local money for projects like convention centers or mass transit.

“Their revenues are enormous, they're just not spending them wisely,” Sanera said. “They're doing the frills, while forgetting the basic services they should be providing.”

Locally, some residents have voiced resistance.

Some say that while they support finding ways to cut crime in the community, they think local leaders should look at existing money sources before increasing taxes.

Leslie Shinn, who heads the neighborhood association in Plaza Midwood, told the Observer said she is wary of using a local sales tax to help pay for court initiatives that are the state's responsibility.

“I have concerns as a citizen about the idea of the county having to raise money to fund things that the state should be funding, that I'm already paying taxes to fund,” Shinn said Wednesday.