Mecklenburg sales tax: Failed by 3-2 margin

Mecklenburg County voters Tuesday emphatically refused a quarter-cent sales tax increase that would have raised teacher salaries.

‘No’ votes outnumbered support for the increase by 61 percent to 39 percent with most precincts reporting, a margin that had held steady from the earliest returns.

County-wide, the proposal’s strongest support came in Davidson and the center city, but even in those precincts the winning margin was generally thin. Elsewhere, the majority of the voters were against it.

The vote came a day after Superintendent Heath Morrison abruptly announced he would resign after two years leading Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which would get 80 percent of the new tax revenue.

But campaign coordinator Marinn Bengel said Morrison’s departure had little to do with the results, noting that early voting figures were also soundly against the increase.

“What I heard from voters was sentiment that they want these four organizations to be funded,” she said, “but they did not choose to fund them in this way.”

The referendum would have raised Mecklenburg’s sales taxes to 7.5 percent, tying Durham and Orange counties for the state’s highest rate. It was expected to bring in about $35 million a year in its first year.

About $28 million would have gone to raising salaries of Charlotte -Mecklenburg Schools employees under a nonbinding resolution county commissioners adopted.

Another 7.5 percent would have increased faculty pay at Central Piedmont Community College and 7.5 percent to educational programs by the Arts & Science Council. The remaining 5 percent would have gone to the public library.

But the referendum was controversial from the moment a divided board of county commissioners scheduled it with a surprise vote in June.

Critics complained that the referendum was hastily planned, without input from the organizations it would benefit or from key community leaders. They said the tax would hurt the poor and middle class and that the revenues could later be diverted to other uses.

State Sen. Joel Ford, a Mecklenburg Democrat who won re-election Tuesday, said he thought the tax increase wasn’t explained well to voters. He called it “poorly constructed and poorly communicated.”

Supporters said new tax revenue would have been a way to keep teacher salaries competitive, halting a growing exodus of educators, while having a minimal effect on consumers – adding 25 cents to a $100 purchase.

While three local bond issues easily passed Tuesday, Bengel said it was hard in a short campaign to convince voters to support higher taxes.

“It still remains to be seen whether messaging played a role,” she said.

The measure almost didn’t make it to the ballot.

State legislators this year passed an average 7 percent pay raise for teachers but gave veteran teachers as little as 0.3 percent. The Senate unsuccessfully tried to cap local sales taxes statewide, a move that would have killed Mecklenburg’s referendum.

Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.

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