Voters reject Mecklenburg sales-tax increase for second time in 5 years

Mecklenburg County voters on Tuesday rejected a sales tax increase for the second time in five years, despite a million-dollar campaign and support from prominent community leaders.

With all precincts reporting, more than 57% opposed the quarter-cent tax increase, which would have raised $50 million a year for the arts, parks and education.

The tax issue topped a ballot where most Charlotte city races were essentially decided in September primaries. Voters also were electing three school board members as well as officials in Mecklenburg County’s six towns.

The measure would have raised the sales tax to 7.5%. County commissioners had promised to allocate 45% ($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 have gone to towns for arts and park projects.

Some voters questioned those priorities.

“I’d rather see more money go toward the schools rather than the Arts & Science Council because the Arts & Science Council gets private and corporate donations,” said Mary Williams, 66, who voted against the tax.

Critics also said because state law caps the sales tax at 7.5%, this would be the county’s last chance to raise additional revenue through the tax. Others said the tax is regressive, hitting the poor the hardest.

“In spite of the fact that the sales tax is small . . . it affects low-income people,” said Walter Saville, 85, who lives in Eastover. “I don’t think that’s the right way to raise money.”

$1 million spent on TV, radio ads

In an effort to pass the tax, supporters created the Partnership for a Better Mecklenburg. It spent at least $1 million on TV and radio ads, targeted mailers and professional consultants.

The Mecklenburg Tax Alliance, the only organized opposition, spent just over $1,000, according to a report filed last week.

Tariq Bokhari, a Republican city council member, spent his own money erecting 10 billboards urging a “thumbs down” on the referendum. And the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity sponsored phone banks.

Republican Matthew Ridenhour, a former county commissioner who started the Tax Alliance to fight the referendum, said he heard of people who made their own fliers to distribute.

“That shows that kind of grassroots engagement,” he said Tuesday night. “What made it so effective was there wasn’t a top-down structure. It was more, in what community can you be effective, and how can you communicate your message to that group?”

Political scientist Eric Heberlig of UNC Charlotte said despite the addition of parks and schools, many voters saw the measure as a referendum on arts funding.

“Arts funding is a priority of city elites, not the average voter,” he said. “The major issue in Charlotte the past few years has been affordable housing, so for many voters, there probably was a disconnect that the (tax) was not going to fund that priority.”

But some voters called the tax a good investment.

“I’m very much in favor of the funding for arts and parks,” said Susan Williams, 76. “It’s a small price to pay for a city that’s well-rounded.”

Hundreds of supporters, meanwhile, signed a full-page ad in Sunday’s Observer. Among them: Mayor Vi Lyles, former Mayor Harvey Gantt and former Bank of America Chairman Hugh McColl Jr. Opponents include Ridenhour and Democrats such as Commissioner Pat Cotham and former state Sen. Joel Ford.

The Partnership’s biggest contributor was $500,000 from the Thrive fund, started in 2013 by McColl. It also got $100,000 from the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council fund. Both are administered by the Foundation for the Carolinas.

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

The biggest contributor to the Tax Alliance was Ridenhour, who bought $1,000 worth of signs in his effort to fight the tax increase.

Josh Hughes, left and daughter, Ellie, 4, center, are led to a voting machine by precinct official Ed King, right, at Precinct #48 at Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC on Tuesday, November 5, 2019. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

New debate over money

It was the second sales tax referendum to fail.

In 2014 supporters wanted the tax primarily to boost school salaries. Smaller amounts would have gone to Central Piedmont Community College and the arts. It fell 61%-39%.

But that election saw turnout of about 40%. Tuesday’s was expected to be less than half that. And compared to the Partnership, the tax advocates behind 2014’s Together4Meck had a late start and a small budget.

A defeat would likely renew debate over the best use of the money.

Affordable housing has been a city priority. And last month Charlotte City Council members postponed a vote on a $50 million contract to start work on the proposed Silver Line light rail expansion between Matthews and Belmont.

Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba told them that the outcome of Tuesday’s referendum “would really help us (know) how you address the sources of funding” for the Silver Line, which is estimated to cost up to $4 billion.

“Win or lose, I believe there will be a discussion up here about what we need to do to adequately fund mass transit,” Democratic Rep. Kelly Alexander, who chairs the county’s legislative delegation, told the Observer.

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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.