Advocates: To support education and arts, vote for sales tax referendum

On the Nov. 4 ballot, the referendum to raise Mecklenburg County’s sales tax by a quarter penny will read like this:

“Local sales and use tax at the rate of one-quarter percent (0.25 percent) in addition to all other state and local sales and use taxes.” Then there’ll be a “for” box or “against” box to check.

Nowhere will it state what the added revenues will be used for.

That’s the job of the Together4Meck campaign. Launched Friday at Central Piedmont Community College, the group composed of leaders of all four recipients and other advocates began to educate voters on how raising the local sales tax by a quarter-cent (or 25 cents per $100) will provide a boost to education and enhance the arts in Mecklenburg.

In June, a 5-4 vote of Mecklenburg County commissioners put the referendum on the ballot. A resolution spelled out how the money would be divided up: 80 percent would go to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and CPCC and the Arts & Science Council would each get 7.5 percent. The remainder would go to the public library.

It’s a “call to action,” said Bill Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group MeckEd. “It is time to reinvest together in education, arts, libraries and bolster economic competitiveness and job creation in Mecklenburg County” by voting for the referendum.

The money generated, he said, would help CMS and CPCC recruit and keep the best teachers, many of whom have left for school districts in other counties and states where salaries are significantly higher. “It concerns me greatly that nearly twice as many teachers left our schools this year than last,” Anderson said.

One by one, leaders of the four beneficiaries spoke about how the money would create new opportunities for each group and stem the tide of a talent drain from Mecklenburg.

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison said recent teacher pay raises by state legislators narrowed the gap between salaries of N.C. teachers and the national average. “We wait to see where that moves us, but we know there is a significant gap,” he said. “We know there is still work that needs to be done” to keep stop quality teachers from leaving the district.

He said the referendum gives voters a chance to show their appreciation for teachers and other employees. “It’s an opportunity in this community to show we can make a difference – we show them by voting ‘yes’ for this initiative.”

Morrison said CMS’ 80 percent from the tax boost would be used for employee salaries.

CPCC President Tony Zeiss told the group that until 2006, the state paid 60 to 63 percent of the college’s operating costs, including teacher salaries. Now it’s 40 percent.

“There’s a very simple formula for building and sustaining great communities: If we want to live well, we have to educate well,” Zeiss said. “We can’t educate well if we don’t have the resources to attract and retain the best faculty and the best staff that we possibly can.”

The college stands to get $2.6 million a year from the extra sales tax revenues and would use all of it to boost current salaries and recruit new talent.

“People who want to do something for education – here’s their chance,” Zeiss said.

The money that would go to the public library would be used in three different areas: to pay for books, paper and electronic; support the library’s digital operations; and make repairs to the 20 branches across the system, said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library CEO Lee Keesler.

A group of residents and advocates is raising private money for the campaign, and soon voters will see yard signs and other campaign signs with the effort’s logo: a copper-colored Lincoln 2014 penny with 25 percent in a pie wedge shaded in green.

“It’s a campaign for investment in Mecklenburg,” said coordinator Marinn Bengel. “It’s a campaign not for a Democrat, not for a Republican, but for our community. It’s a campaign to benefit everyone.”