Politics & Government

Businesses give pro-sales tax group a big financial edge: ‘Tax increases are not easy’

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2019 election coverage

Mecklenburg County voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect local officials and school board members — and decide whether to raise their taxes.

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With strong support from business, supporters of Mecklenburg County’s sales tax increase have nearly $830,000 — while a group opposing it raised less than $1,500, according to reports filed Tuesday.

The Partnership for a Better Mecklenburg had spent $592,000 through Oct. 21, according to new finance report. It’s running a full-fledged campaign, spending more than $1 million on TV and radio ads, targeted mailers and professional consultants.

The Mecklenburg Tax Alliance, which opposes the tax increase, raised just $1,450, and most of that was from two people.

The groups are on opposite sides of a measure on next Tuesday’s ballot that would raise the sales tax a quarter-cent, to 7.5%. That would raise $50 million a year for the arts, parks and education. Their campaigns are well under way with Election Day less than a week away and early voting ending Friday.

“It just takes a lot of money to educate and to get our message out,” said Darrel Williams, who chairs the Partnership For A Better Mecklenburg. “As you know, tax increases are not easy. It takes money.”

Voters won’t see anything about the arts, parks or education on the ballot. By state law, they’ll be asked to vote yes or no on: “Local sales and use tax at the rate of one-quarter percent (0.25%) in addition to all other State and local sales and use taxes.”

County commissioners have said they would allocate 45% of the new revenue ($22.5 million) to the arts; 34% ($17 million) to parks and greenways; and 16% ($8 million) to education. Another 5% ($2.5 million) would go to towns for arts and park projects.

The Partnership’s biggest contributor was $500,000 from the Thrive fund, started in 2013 by former Bank of America Chairman Hugh McColl Jr. It also got $50,000 from the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council fund. Both are administered by the Foundation for the Carolinas.

Other $50,000 contributions came from the Carolina Panthers, Duke Energy and Spangler Companies. Atrium Health gave $25,000.

The biggest contributor to the Tax Alliance was former Republican county commissioner Mathew Ridenhour, who bought $1,000 worth of signs in his effort to fight the tax increase. The group also got $150 from Democratic commissioner Path Cotham.

“Obviously they’ve been able to hire all the big guns,” Ridenhour said. “They’re running a great campaign. With that kind of money they should be winning this thing 60% to 40%. I absolutely don’t think they are.”

Ridenhour said his group isn’t the only tax opponent spending money.

Charlotte City Council member Tariq Bokhari, a Republican, had 10 billboards erected Monday. On half of each billboard is a “thumbs up” sign to re-elect him. The other half features a “thumbs down” sign on the tax increase.

“I kind of want to do my part to help the resistance which is very under-funded compared to the pro- group,” Bokhari said, adding that he spent about $6,500 on the dual purpose signs.

The marketing campaign promoting the tax says it would allow benefits to be spread throughout the community.

It features videos of people of all ages, races and ethnicities pushing the message that the tax is for “all of us.” Kids say it would allow them to take more field trips. Seniors talk about the advantage of more parks. And teachers say they’d welcome the additional support.

In one video, McColl Jr. asks if Mecklenburg is willing to “think big again.”

He notes that the tax would amount to just 5 cents on every $20.

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.