Politics & Government

Mecklenburg commissioners gave thumbs up to a sales tax referendum. But will voters?

The Charlotte Symphony chorus is among the arts groups that could benefit if voters approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase in November.
The Charlotte Symphony chorus is among the arts groups that could benefit if voters approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase in November. Charlotte Symphony

With a poll showing that two out of three Mecklenburg County voters would back raising taxes for the arts and parks, supporters cheered Tuesday when county commissioners voted to put a referendum on the fall ballot.

But some commissioners — including one who voted for the move — are doubtful the public will get behind a measure that would raise the cost of buying everything from school supplies and books to furniture and cars.

If voters approve the referendum in November, it 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 an estimated $50 million a year.

“People are going to say a resounding, ‘Hell no,’” said Commissioner Pat Cotham, who voted against putting the referendum on the ballot. “This is going to be a big mess.”

Mecklenburg voters soundly rejected a similar sales-tax proposal five years ago that would have raised money for teacher pay raises, Central Piedmont Community College, libraries and the arts.

This time, arts supporters say, will be different.

In 2014, they say, there was just a few weeks to plan and run a campaign for the referendum.

“We’re optimistic that with more planning and more resources we’ll be in a position to educate voters about this,” said Valecia McDowell, who chairs the Arts and Science Council, which supports museums, educational programs and arts organizations with private donations and local tax dollars. “Based on what we’ve seen in the polling, if we have the time and resources we’ll be successful.”

‘A double hit’

The sales-tax proposal has prompted fierce debate about Mecklenburg County’s spending priorities.

A coalition of non-profit executives, artists and business people say without more public funding the future of arts and culture offerings in the county would be in doubt.

They said fundraising fell dramatically during the Great Recession and never recovered. The number of workplace fundraising drives has fallen from about 300 a year to 75.

The result is that ASC grants to local arts groups have fallen from $13.2 million in 2008 to $6.8 million last year. Groups such as the United Way also have seen fundraising problems. This year it cut its contributions to other non-profits.

But critics say it is morally backward to press for money for museums, music and art when the county is suffering a lack of affordable housing, economic inequality and other pressing needs.

They ask why the ASC groups should receive dedicated public funding when other organization serving the needy do not.

“My question (is) why have they not changed their fundraising model to meet changes in giving patterns?” former State Sen. Joel Ford said. “All 501(c)(3)s have to compete for funding. If you can’t find people to fund your cause, why should taxpayers be forced to do so?”

Former Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour started an online petition opposing the sales tax increase. It quickly gathered nearly 400 signatures.

Ridenhour and other critics have noted that county commissioners passed a nearly $2 billion budget earlier this year that will see property taxes go up for the vast majority of homeowners and businesses in the county.

“I think there will be a pretty broad coalition of folks opposed (to a tax hike),” Ridenhour said. “They realize it might only cost an extra penny or two on a lunch . . . (but) over the course of a year a penny here, a penny there, add up to a lot of money, especially in a year when property taxes have gone up. . . . That’s a double hit on people’s wallet the same year.”

But Robert Bush, recently retired president of the ASC, said cities such as Denver, Cleveland and San Francisco benefit from public funding for the arts. Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte now provide the ASC roughly $5 million a year.

Advocates say more money is needed for the ASC to eliminate barriers to participation and continue programs that target demographic groups and neighborhoods that have historically low levels of participation with arts programs including African Americans, Latinos and others.

Bush said that museums, theater, music and other arts programming have contributed to the region’s economic boom — as well as local government revenue — by making Charlotte an attractive place for businesses and prospective employees to relocate. He noted the new buildings that rose in the southern portion of uptown after several new museums opened in the area.

“It has been a driver of economic development,” he said. “It could all go away.”

Asked about voters’ refusal to support the 2014 referendum, Bush said arts groups did not have time to put together an effective public information campaign. He said such ballot initiatives often are rejected by voters on the first try and passed on subsequent tries.

Cotham said she and some others officials have asked arts supporters to wait and possibly put the issue on the ballot next year. But she said arts leaders wanted to press ahead this fall because wealthy donors who could contribute to a public information campaign will be focused on the presidential election in 2020.

That has left commissioners with too little time to figure out how they will provide oversight of the money, she said. The ASC is a privately run organization whose leaders are not elected.

“This is half-baked,” Cotham said. “(Supporters) could end up looking like fools.”

Long odds?

A poll this spring for the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance showed that two of three voters would support a sales tax hike for the arts. Support was strongest among those under 35 and those who aren’t married.

But in North Carolina, efforts to raise sales taxes have had a tough road.

Since 2007, voters have rejected 117 ballot proposals seeking to raise county sales taxes and approved 42, according to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.

“There is likely a myriad of different reasons that vary from county to county,” association spokeswoman Lacy Pate said of the results. “However, we have heard anecdotally that counties believe voters may be more willing to support a ballot question if they were able to present it differently on the ballot so voters could see how the money would be spent.”

If the voters approve the referendum, commissioners have promised to allocate 45% of the money, or $22.5 million a year, to the Arts and Science Council. 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.

But the ballot question will say nothing about the arts or parks. Instead it will ask voters only if they want to raise the sales tax a quarter-cent “in addition to all other state and local sales and use taxes.” So commissioners may feel political pressure to support the promised services, but not legal pressure.

“The promises of where this money will go have absolutely zero legal significance,” said Gerry Cohen, who ran the General Assembly’s bill drafting division for decades. “Commissioners can decide what to do each year.”

Steve Hall, a digital marketing consultant from Huntersville, expressed support for the tax on social media. He said the sales tax is a good way to fund the arts.

“In practical terms, one-quarter-percent is unnoticeable on a personal level,” he told the Observer. “It’s $2.50 on a $1,000 purchase. However . . . it’s enough to securely fund some of the art programs that make the Queen City great. . . . The bottom line is that nice things cost money, and this is a fairly painless way to pay for them.”

But Commissioner Trevor Fuller, who voted to put the issue to voters, said some voters won’t realize what they’d get from raising taxes when they read the ballot.

He said he suggested officials consider paying for the arts through property taxes, but the idea did not gain traction.

“I’m not sure this was the best to do this,” Fuller said. “If you say this is a crisis and you don’t get it, what happens then?”

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.