Mecklenburg will let voters decide whether to raise sales tax for the arts and parks

According to a 2016 community survey, 76% of Mecklenburg County residents said greenways were the park and recreation amenity most needed by the county.
According to a 2016 community survey, 76% of Mecklenburg County residents said greenways were the park and recreation amenity most needed by the county. eellenburg@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County voters will decide whether to help fund the arts and parks through a higher sales tax this fall.

County commissioners voted 7-2 Tuesday to put a sales tax referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot. The tax would add a quarter-cent to the county’s 7.25% sales tax.

That would amount to 5 cents on a $20 purchase and raise $50 million each year.

One commissioner urged colleagues to give voters a choice.

“I hear the argument that we have pressing issues in the community,” said Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell. “I don’t see how putting it on the ballot harms anyone. What it does is give (a) choice. Not supporting this measure would only serve to widen the opportunity gap.”

Democratic Commissioners Pat Cotham and Elaine Powell voted against the measure.

The act will be on the fall ballot with language only identifying it as a sales tax increase. The county would not be bound to spend the funds in the agreed-upon distribution.

Commissioners also voted to allocate 45% of the money, or $22.5 million, to the Arts and Science Council, which supports museums, educational programs and arts organizations with private donations and local tax dollars.

Another $17 million would go to parks and greenways; $8 million to education; and $2.5 million to arts and culture projects and parks in the county’s small towns.

Advocates for the arts

Artists and other arts advocates filled the Government Center chamber. Some carried signs that said, “Arts for All.” Yasmine Young told commissioners that a gift of a saxophone to her son “empowered his humanity so he could give back to the community.”

Advocates said the arts can reach throughout the community, describing the arts as a tool for equity.

In recent weeks, several of the commissioners put forth alternate plans for distribution of the funds, with more money going to parks and education. Commissioners have expressed concerns about prioritizing the arts over public services like affordable housing.

Valecia McDowell, chair of the Arts & Science Council, has said local arts funding is at a “crisis point.” Workplace giving, once the backbone of the ASC’s arts funding, has fallen from $11.5 million in 2007 to $5 million last year.

The number of workplace fundraising drives has fallen from about 300 a year to 75. And the Bank of America, one of Mecklenburg’s biggest employers, said in December that it no longer will have any workplace fundraising drives.

As a result of the drop, the ASC has had to reduce grants from $11.3 million in 2008-09 to $5.8 million in the most recent fiscal year. ASC money to the Charlotte Symphony, for example, has fallen from around $2 million to $622,000 in 10 years.

If the sales tax passes this fall, arts advocates say the city and county would end the $5.6 million they now give arts through property tax revenue.

“If we don’t reach some sort of pivot,” McDowell has said, “We are going to lose a lot in this community.”

New sales tax

The ASC first presented a plan for the new sales tax to Mecklenburg commissioners in February. ASC spokeswoman Krista Terrell said a study committee recommended the tax as the best option for a dedicated public revenue stream. The sales tax, she said, would generate a “sufficient, sustainable and growing stream of funding” to meet needs into the future.

The ASC has emphasized what they call the “equity” of the plan, in devoting arts resources to communities all around Mecklenburg County. The organization runs a program called Culture Blocks, which focuses specifically on previously underserved communities.

McDowell has said that this and similar programs would be a main focus of the increased funding. The ASC rearranged their giving structure in 2015 to align with community feedback.

At 7.25%, Mecklenburg County’s sales tax rate is the second-highest in the state. (Orange and Durham counties have a 7.5% rate). The county tax rate includes 4.75% for the state, 2% for the county and a half-cent specifically for transit projects such as the Blue Line light rail.

Adding to the sales tax could be controversial, even though all the commissioners said they support increased arts funding. County commissioners already set the property tax rate at a level that will raise taxes for a majority of property owners in the wake of the county’s first revaluation in eight years, which sent most home values soaring.

Commissioner Trevor Fuller alluded to that when he said “the real battle is convincing the community that we should levy the tax.”

“The real test,” he said, “is going to be in November.”

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Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.