Voters To Weigh In On Sales Tax For CMS Employee Pay
Mecklenburg County voters will decide next week whether to increase the county’s sales tax by a quarter cent. If approved, Mecklenburg County’s sales tax would be 7.5 percent. Most of the increase would be used to boost the salaries of CMS employees. But there’s also money in there for the library system, Central Piedmont Community College and the Arts and Science Council.
Even supporters have some concerns.
Karen Brown wants this sales tax referendum to pass. She has two children at South Meck High school and is a member of the PTSA there. But she admits this proposal isn’t an ideal solution for higher teacher pay.
“I think it’s unfortunate that it’s come down to this tax,” says Brown.
“But if that’s the only way that we can increase teacher salaries, then I’m supportive of it and I hope everyone in Mecklenburg County will vote for it.”
Actually, teachers did get a raise this year. After several years of stagnant salaries, state lawmakers decided on a 7 percent hike. But that’s a 7 percent average raise.
“There are teachers that got more than 7 percent, but there are also many teachers that got less,” says CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison.
He’s making the district’s pitch to a group of parents and teachers at South Meck High School. The sales tax would generate about $27 million for CMS a year. The district would use that to even out the state’s pay raises for all its employees and make CMS salaries more competitive.
“Every time I talk to teachers about this they say, ‘It’s not about the salary, but you know what? When I can do the same thing I love here at South Meck, or at Community House, or Providence or Providence Spring, or Sterling and I can go right down the road and do this in Rock Hill and make $10,000 more, why would I not consider doing that?’”
County commissioners heard that same question this spring when they were putting together the budget. At that time, state lawmakers hadn’t made up their minds on a raise. The CMS school board asked for an extra $27 million to pay for a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise.
That didn’t happen, but a couple commissioners had another idea: a quarter-cent sales tax increase.
“It’s very different from us voting to increase their property taxes. This is people voting themselves to decide whether this is what they want to support,” says Commissioner Dumont Clarke.
Eighty percent of that money would go to CMS. The rest would be split up this way:
7.5 percent to CPCC
7.5 percent to the Arts and Science Council
5 percent to the library system
“It was a little bit of a surprise,” says Jeff Lowrance with CPCC.
“But we are nevertheless delighted that our county commissioners want to do more to help.”
The proposal took a lot of people by surprise. But groups quickly came up with ways to spend those funds.
“We would use that money to help us add some much-needed positions and then to help us be able to attract and maintain some hard-to-hold-onto positions,” says Lowrance.
For example, adding counselors to help students pick classes and stay on track and boosting salaries of some faculty and staff like those associated with nursing and IT.
The library system would purchase more new books, expand its digital offerings, and make improvements at its branches.
The Arts and Science Council would put the bulk of its money toward education initiatives such as field trips, and also help stabilize its grant program.
The referendum was almost derailed this summer when state lawmakers tried to limit county sales taxes.
Since then the referendum hasn’t faced much of an organized challenge, but Christian Hine is leading what there is. His group CAUTION helped organize the Tea Party in Charlotte. They’ve passed out a bunch of signs, reading No Sales Tax Hike.
“This sales tax is actually general revenue,” says Hine.
“There’s no guarantee that this county commission will use this money for the purposes that it’s advertising and the pro-campaign is actually advertising.”
He’s right. By law, the revenue the quarter-cent sales tax would generate can’t be guaranteed to always be spent on CMS, CPCC, the library system and the ASC. But commissioners say it would be bad policy and bad politics to do otherwise.
School board member Rhonda Lennon voiced another concern at an August school board meeting.
“What they can also do in a year is say, ‘We aren’t going to give you your budget request increase.’”
That is since CMS would be getting extra money from the sales tax.
Back at South Meck High School, Marinn Bengel jokes with the crowd. She represents the group leading the campaign supporting the sales tax called Together 4 Meck.
“Now, I never thought I’d stand here and say, ‘Would you vote for taxes?’ That was not on my list of things to do,” she tells them.
But she says this is an opportunity to finally get things right.
A previous version of this story said that the bulk of ASC's share raised from the sales tax hike would go toward stabilizing its grant programs. Most of the money would actually go toward education initiatives such as field trips.