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‘There are other needs.’ Mecklenburg leaders skeptical of plan to raise tax for arts

Mecklenburg County Commissioners Pat Cotham (left), Trevor Fuller (middle) and Vilma Leake (right) all voiced skepticism Tuesday about a proposal for a quarter-cents sales tax increase to support the arts.
Mecklenburg County Commissioners Pat Cotham (left), Trevor Fuller (middle) and Vilma Leake (right) all voiced skepticism Tuesday about a proposal for a quarter-cents sales tax increase to support the arts. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

In a debate that put spending for the arts versus the poor, Mecklenburg County commissioners said Tuesday they were skeptical about a proposal for a quarter-cent sales tax increase.

Proponents packed a meeting Tuesday night, carrying signs and making speeches in favor a plan that would let voters decide whether to raise $50 million a year to pay for arts, greenways and educational programs.

A coalition of arts, nonprofit and business executives called for commissioners to put the issue on the Nov. 6 ballot.

But most commissioners pushed back, saying that a county grappling with economic inequality, a lack of affordable housing and other needs should prioritize spending for the poor over museums, ballet and culture.

“There are other needs,” Commissioners Vilma Leake said. “Many of my constituents cannot afford to participate. Some of them don’t have lights on.”

“We must remember the least of these,” Commissioner Mark Jerrell said. “People working two jobs to make ends meet.”

Commissioners did not take a vote Tuesday. They are scheduled to make a decision at a July meeting.

Under the plan, the sales tax on every eligible purchase within the county would go up by a quarter-cent. Some $24.5 million would go to the Arts and Science Council, a nonprofit that channels around $15 million per year to local arts groups.

The remainder would be divided by county officials, with proposed uses that include $8 million as a “teacher supplement,” funding for arts and culture in Mecklenburg county towns, and up to $15 million for the development of county greenways.

Supporters say public money is needed because corporate giving and other donations for the arts has dried up since the Great Recession.

The council’s funding comes from private donations — around $10 million per year — and money from the city, county and state. With donations slowing in recent years, the group has turned to alternates to fund its more than 100 sponsored organizations each year.

Proponents of sales tax increase said cities such as Pittsburgh, Pa., Denver and Chicago support the arts with public tax dollars and reap the benefits of increased tourism, economic development and better educational outcomes.

“That investment pays off,” said Kathryn Hill, president and executive officer of the Levine Musuem of the New South.

Commissioner Chair George Dunlap said that quarter-cent sales tax increase is a small price to pay compared to the benefits. Dunlap said that arts programs can help lift the people from poverty.

For a $20 purchase, Dunlap said, the proposed increase would add just a 5 cents to the cost.

He also said that Mecklenburg County would benefit when visitors from other places come and spend money.

“We ought to take advantage of having others support our arts,” Dunlap said.

But Commissioner Pat Cotham said a similar idea to support the arts failed in 2014.

Most homeowners will see an increase in their property tax bills this year after the county’s recent revaluation of land, Cotham said.

“I worry about the timing of all of this,” she said. “We just did the revaluation and some people will struggle to pay their bill.”

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