Charlotte Observer endorsement: A sales tax hike for the arts and parks?

There should be little doubt that a robust arts scene and parks system are vital to our thriving city and county. There also is little question that arts organizations in Charlotte are threatened by private fundraising issues, and that our parks need more public money to reach their potential.

That’s why a more challenging question faces Mecklenburg voters this November: Should the county raise the sales tax a quarter-cent to fund the arts and parks along with some public school needs? Revenue from such a tax hike would raise about $50 million a year, with $22.5 million (about 45 percent) going to the arts, $17 million going to parks and recreation, $8 million to education and $2.5 million to arts, culture projects and parks in county’s small towns.

Those millions would be, quite simply, a game changer for arts and parks. But for reasons this editorial board has noted before, plus some new considerations, we believe a sales tax increase is the wrong way to do the right thing.

A sales tax hike would be regressive, meaning that it would disproportionately burden low-income families. The hike also would come on the heels of a hefty county budget passed this year that carries a property tax increase for most Mecklenburg property owners. The increase also would likely affect renters who see at least some of the property tax increase passed on by landlords.

Equally as troubling is the uncertainty surrounding the sales tax revenue in the short and long term. Current and future commissioners aren’t required to spend the money as they say they would, and voters have good reason to be wary. Just last year, county officials wanted to move a new soccer stadium ahead of other unfunded parks projects. Commissioners could have mitigated that concern by making specific promises about new projects, but they haven’t. That’s a red flag.

City officials have additional concerns that raising the sales tax now would limit the Charlotte City Council’s capacity to do the same for critical projects such as a light rail line from west to south Charlotte. As important as the arts and parks are, should they get in line before projects that could more profoundly address economic mobility issues in Charlotte?

Finally, there’s some early question in the arts-philanthropic community about whether the sales tax hike might have a long-term dampening effect on individual support of the arts. If patrons believe they’ve already done their part via the sales tax, the arts could see their greatest source of income wane.

All of which should have been more thoughtfully considered by commissioners before they placed this sales tax referendum on the ballot. Instead, they took a politically expedient route that allows them to say voters have declared how important the arts and parks are to them. That’s not true nor fair, because the sales tax proposal on November’s ballot is flawed. We recommend voting no. If voters decide the same, commissioners should remember all the pleas they made for arts and parks this election season, then go back and fund them the right way next year.