Mecklenburg residents love their parks. Will they love a tax hike to improve them?

Mecklenburg County residents say in surveys that they love their parks. That’s despite national rankings that place the park system near the bottom among U.S. metro areas and an urgent-needs backlog that the park commission says tops $1 billion.

In November, voters will decide what their parks — and a few other other things — are worth to them.

A ballot question will ask whether voters support a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax, to 7.5%. It does not describe the plan for spending the $50 million a year in added revenue that county commissioners devised in July: 45% for arts and culture, 34% for parks and greenways, 16% for education and 5% for towns to spend on arts or parks.

It’s unclear how the parks’ $17 million annual share would be used. The parks department says county commissioners would decide that.

But the parks commission, an advisory board, describes a system that is falling behind the torrid pace of Charlotte’s growth, particularly in securing land for future parks and greenways.

The commission says the county would need to spend $910 million by 2027 to match the average, in park acres per capita, of comparable metro areas. A goal of building 129 miles of greenway trails — county residents’ favorite park amenity, according to surveys — by 2018 fell far short.

“I have seen very few people argue that there isn’t a shortage in our funding for both programming for parks and for land acquisition,” said county commissioner Susan Harden, who serves on the campaign committee promoting the sales tax increase. “We have to buy land because developers are buying it faster than we are.”

The Trust for Public Land, a national advocacy group, cited numerous other failings this year in ranking Charlotte-Mecklenburg 96th of 100 major park systems. TPL judged the 21,000 acres of parks to be above average, but said metro Charlotte ranks far below most cities in amenities, park spending per resident and access to parks:

Only 36% of Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents live with a 10-minute walk of a park, compared to the 54% national average.

The county spent only $42 per resident on parks in 2018, while the national median is $78.

And while Charlotte-Mecklenburg parks have an above-average number of basketball hoops, they lag other large cities in facilities such as playgrounds, recreation centers and dog parks. The number of restrooms in Charlotte parks — one for every 20,000 people — ranked among the lowest 7% of all park systems TPL rated.

County commissioners responded to the park board’s urgent-needs recommendations this year by increasing park department operating funds by 16% to $40.3 million and adding 50 full-time employees, for a total of 393.

Commissioners also accelerated greenway construction, approving $63 million over four years to add 30 miles of greenway trails to the 52 miles now open (41 additional miles are under construction or in design). The county’s 2019-2023 capital budget includes $261 million for 28 park projects. It includes 13 greenway expansions and all projects that were to be funded with $250 million in park bonds that voters approved in 2008 but were delayed by the recession.

How to spend tax revenue?

If voters approve the sales tax hike, the parks commission recommends investing the first year’s revenue on expanding access to existing parks and programs rather than on building things, Chair Heidi Pruess said. That’s in part because a 10-year parks master plan won’t be completed until the end of 2020.

“What the park and recreation commission has done every year is to give advice to (county commissioners) on funding and priorities, and historically those have been land acquisition and adequate staffing,” Pruess said. “This last year, and in the budget for the current year, many of those holes were filled. At the end of the year, if the sales tax passes, we will have a more in-depth discussion with staff of what could be further priorities.”

County commissioners adopted a resolution Tuesday on how the sales tax revenue would be allocated.

The resolution separates tax proceeds from other operating funds to ensure that budgets aren’t reduced as new revenue comes in. It calls for a detailed spending plan, based on citizen input and the parks master plan, to be prepared for commissioners. That plan is to address programming for children and seniors, land acquisition and deferred maintenance that reached $4.5 million this year.

Banu Valladares, executive director of the Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, told commissioners that more education and arts funding, provided by the sales tax increase, would help give immigrants a sense of belonging in their new neighborhoods. More parks, she added, would make them healthier.

“Our communities are afraid to get out,” Valladares said. “Some of them can’t drive, and if you’ve got parks in your neighborhood and opportunities through parks to get out and do things, you actually can get healthier. Our children are not moving as much as they need to.”

Parks vs. other priorities

Asking Mecklenburg voters to increase the sales tax is a ticklish matter that county commissioners debated for months. State law lets North Carolina counties raise the tax only once, and questions linger over whether they made the right call.

“Once we raise it, that’s it, we’ve tapped out our sales tax,” said Matthew Ridenhour, a former county commissioner leading the Mecklenburg Tax Alliance, which opposes this year’s referendum. “We have to really ask ourselves if this is the way we want to spend money for our community.”

In 2014, voters defeated a sales tax increase by a wide margin. The revenue would have raised teacher salaries, paid for educational programs run by the Arts & Science Council and benefited public libraries. Critics complained that the referendum was hastily planned with too little input from the organizations it would benefit.

Ridenhour asserts that there has been too little input this year, too, into how the tax revenue would be spent. “It kind of got thrown at voters a few months ago, but doesn’t necessarily align with what people want,” he said.

A poll this spring for the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance found that two out of three voters would support a sales tax hike for the arts. But despite county commissioners’ resolution Tuesday on how the money would be spent, future boards could spend it as they see fit.

Harden, the current county commissioner, said the most vocal referendum opponents this year appear to be either anti-tax voters or advocates for affordable housing and the homeless, which aren’t addressed in the referendum.

“They been outspoken about asking questions, and that’s fair,” she said. “We have to show how art saves lives and how parks and land acquisition is a matter of public health.”

Commissioners’ vice chair Elaine Powell, a former parks commissioner, argued for parks to get a larger portion of the sales tax revenue. But, along with fellow Democrat Pat Cotham, she voted against both the referendum in July and Tuesday’s resolution on allocating the tax revenue.

Powell said she won’t publicly support or oppose the referendum vote, but questions the 45% share of revenue for arts and culture when she said parks are “desperate” for money.

“In the 30 years I’ve been engaged in the community, and I’m a really good listener, I have never seen that listed to be a top priority,” she said. “How did (arts) become such a huge priority that it took that large a chunk? It will be up to the voters to decide.”

What are county residents’ priorities? That depends on who’s asking.

A 2016 community survey for the parks department found that three out of four residents called greenways the most-needed amenity. Residents ranked buying land to preserve open space and building trails as their first two choices for spending of tax dollars.

But a county survey of budget priorities in January, which got about 1,600 responses, ranked education, health and human services and affordable housing as the top three choices. Recreation ranked sixth of the seven spending categories, which did not include arts.

Asked how they would allocate $100, and given a longer list of spending choices, residents named public schools, affordable housing and parks and greenways in the top three. But the survey found some sharp racial differences. African Americans made affordable housing their top priority by a 2:1 margin over whites. Whites ranked parks and greenways second among their top choices, but blacks put it in eighth place.

“Parks and greenways fell off, except for whites,” commissioners’ Chair George Dunlap said in March. “It was not a top priority for African Americans. It was not a top priority for Hispanics.”