Should Mecklenburg County shoppers pay more taxes for the arts?

Should Mecklenburg County shoppers pay more in sales taxes to support the arts?

That’s the question supporters of the idea want voters to answer at the polls this fall.

On Tuesday, Mecklenburg County’s board of commissioners will hear a proposal for a quarter-cent sales tax increase. The board can’t pass the measure, but proponents are hoping for a county-wide referendum on Nov. 6.

If passed, the bill would bump up sales tax on every eligible purchase within the county by a quarter-cent, which will generate an estimated $50 million per year. Of that, $24.5 million would go directly the Arts and Science Council, a nonprofit that channels around $15 million per year to local arts groups.

The remainder would be split up at the county’s discretion, 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.

The plan was first discussed by the commissioners in February with only $20 million going to the ASC. Since then, the county increased the ASC’s share to 49 percent ($24.5 million per year) and determined recipients for the remaining cash.

Robert Bush, who has served as the president of the council since 2014 and who will retire at the end of the month, said that the ASC is working with fewer dollars than it was in the 1990s and that a move to a dedicated revenue stream is necessary.

The plan was first proposed in 2014 but didn’t make it past the board of commissioners. A renewed push by the county and the ASC began last year, Bush said.

Commissioner Pat Cotham, an at-large Democrat, said that she didn’t vote for the plan in 2014 and was unlikely to vote for it now. She cited a lack of knowledge about incoming president R. Jeep Bryant’s plans, as well as a disproportionate burden on Charlotte-Mecklenberg taxpayers when arts patrons come from many different counties.

“Are those counties contributing anything? No,” Cotham said.

The ASC’s own funding comes from a mix of private donations — around $10 million per year — and money from the city, county and state. With corporate and individual donations drying up in recent years, the council has turned to alternate ways to fund its more than 100 sponsored organizations each year.

The measure would also restructure the 60-year-old council, which will welcome both its new president and new board chair Valecia McDowell on July 1. A reorganization might include a new 509c supporting organization, shifting the council into an LLC or creating a new 501c3 nonprofit organization entirely — steps aimed at improving oversight and transparency.

Several local arts groups are strongly in favor of the measure, including Opera Carolina.

An allocation would be a “recognition of the role the arts play in attracting creative individuals to make Greater Charlotte their home,“ General Director James Meena said. “A tax allocation does not preclude the need for private investment, but would provide a firm foundation upon which the arts community can thrive.”

Opera Carolina is one of several local arts organizations that plans to have representatives speak Tuesday in favor of the measure. Others include Charlotte Ballet and the Mint Museum, all of whom receive funding from the county for their arts and entertainment programs.

Meena said that the opera hoped to establish a reliable funding model in order to establish a resident opera company in Charlotte, something that couldn’t be done with money fluctuating on everything from the whims of donors to closures from ice storms.

“This would dramatically change the arts scene in Charlotte,” Meena said.

With a passed referendum, Bush said, “all sorts of things are possible.”

Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell told the Observer in an email that she was keeping an open mind going into the meeting, but was cautious about increasing taxes.

“Lower income people will naturally pay a higher proportion of their monthly budget in sales taxes,” she said, though the increase was minimal. Rodriguez-McDowell said she supported funding for the arts and the other proposed recipients, and was interested in seeing research on the impact of the tax across income levels.

Cotham said that people who are struggling “hardly have extra money to save,” and worried that low-income citizens may be taxed for arts programs they will never attend.

Bush said that polling conducted by the county found positive results in favor of the tax increase. Those results will also be discussed at the meeting.

In 2007, the state legislature gave every county the right to put a quarter-cent sales tax increase before voters to fund programs determined by its board. The board of commissioners is not obligated to levy the tax even if the vote passes.


An earlier version of this story gave the wrong name for Opera Carolina General Director James Meena.