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Mecklenburg Commissioners Move Closer To Placing Arts Sales Tax On Ballot

Steve Harrison/WFAE
Valecia McDowell, who will become chair of the Arts and Science Council in July, spoke at Tuesday's commission meeting.

Mecklenburg County commissioners Tuesday discussed increasing the sales tax by a quarter-cent, primarily to fund the arts.

The Arts and Science Council has requested the tax to offset a decline in corporate donations, as well as from individual donors. Commissioners are scheduled to vote on whether to place the tax on the November ballot next week. 

The new quarter-cent sales tax would raise Mecklenburg’s general sales tax to 7.5% – and would generate $50 million a year.

The proposal calls for the arts to receive just under half of that money, about $24 million. Parks and greenways – and education – would also be funded from the tax. About $8 million would be used to increase pay of CMS teachers.

"I believe in public funding for the arts," said first-term Commissioner Susan Harden. "I can’t control what corporations do with their funding for the arts. I know they have been very generous with what they have done with the arts in this community."

She said that, "I can’t control what individuals do with their individual donations. But I profoundly believe in public investments in the arts. We support our sports teams in this community. We support out business community. We support our educational institutions."

Valecia McDowell, who will become chair of the Arts and Science Council next month, said about $10 million of the $24 million would go to stabilize existing programs funded by the ASC, like the Charlotte Symphony, the Mint Museum and Discovery Place.

She said the rest of the money – about $14 million – would be spent on new arts education programs that would be spread throughout the county, including in District 2, represented by Commissioner Vilma Leake.

"It would be transformational if we could go into Ms. Leake’s district, and this tax passes, and I sit down with Ms. Leake, and Ms. Leake says to me, these are the neighborhoods that you need to be in with continuing programming. – and we were actually able to do that," McDowell said. "And we’ve never been able to do that."

But Elaine Powell, the board’s vice chair, said she wishes parks and greenways could possibly get more of the money.

"I wish that parks and recreation advocates, greenway advocates, Carolina Thread Trail advocates, could have had the opportunity in February to appear before us to ask us for the sales tax," she said. "Well I believe that the arts, science and culture are very important, it feels like this cake was already baked without authentic community input."

Commission chair George Dunlap, who has been the biggest supporter of the tax proposal, is a member of the Arts and Science Council board.

He said it’s important to remember that the arts community has been pushing for the tax – and are the ones most likely to fund a public campaign to convince people to support it.

He said people forget that "if it is not for the arts we will not have a campaign. There is no parks and recreation money. There is no teacher money."

In addition to deciding how much of the tax would go to arts versus parks and education, county manager Dena Diorio has also suggested changing the governance of the Arts and Science to ensure commissioners and the public know how the money is spent.

Options discussed were to make a new arts group attached to the Foundation for the Carolinas, or to create an entirely new non-profit organization.

But there was no proposal to make the new arts group a part of government – either as an authority like Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority or a part of county government.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.