Last Sunday, supporters of a sales tax increase for arts, parks and education in Mecklenburg County took out a two-page, full color advertisement in the Charlotte Observer. One of those pages featured a list of hundreds of community members and leaders who supported the tax increase. Above their names was a declaration: “We, the undersigned, are proud to endorse the Mecklenburg Sales & Use Tax because it will be transformational for Parks, Arts and Education for our residents and our county.”
Two days later, on Election Day, the sales tax failed by a 15-percentage-point margin. But the names of supporters remain, and they include seven members of the Mecklenburg Board of Commissioners.
Last we checked, that’s a majority on a nine-member board.
It’s time for those commissioners to live up to their support of the arts, parks and education — support that was expressed in more than a newspaper ad. It’s time for them to do what they should have done earlier this year instead of taking the politically easy path and sending voters a clumsily conceived referendum that was poorly timed and too vague. Of course it failed.
It’s time, now, for commissioners to do what they should have done long ago — their job.
They should support the struggling arts community with reasonable, sustained funding in the next county budget.
They should demand an arts proposal that benefits the whole community, a plan that fulfills promises made and repeated for years about expanding access to arts and enriching families and children of all socio-economic levels.
They should better fund a financially neglected parks and greenway system that has the potential to be a jewel for our city and county.
None of which is easy, and some of which may not be popular, as the referendum’s resounding loss suggests. But while some voters certainly would say no to any tax increase or funding for the arts, some said no only to this particular referendum. They had good reason. As this editorial board said last month, it was a referendum that proposed a regressive sales tax increase on the back of a recent property tax increase for many county residents. It also was money that could be spent however current and future commissioners wanted — even on things having nothing to do with the arts, parks and education. Also, a sales tax increase might limit the Charlotte City Council’s future capacity to address economic mobility issues like transportion and housing.
Those issues are urgent and critical. But money for the arts, while less critical, certainly is urgent. The Arts & Science Council’s funding model has crumbled. Workplace giving — the primary source of private funding — has dropped dramatically. Other private funding has lagged compared to other cities our size.
The City Council and county commissioners have done some to help — this year the ASC received $3 million from Charlotte and almost $2 million from Mecklenburg. That’s not unusual — government support of the arts is common, just the same as government support of recreation and professional sports and anything officials think might improve quality of life and attract new businesses and talent.
Those decisions should be made carefully, but they should be made. And in Mecklenburg County, they should be made the next time the Board of Commissioners sits down to craft its budget. Those commissioners should ensure that the richness of arts, the value of vibrant parks and the tools of education are accessible to all our children, not just those in families who can pay for them. It’s time to do what they should have done all along.