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Mecklenburg Commissioners Vote To Place Sales Tax For Arts On November Ballot

Steve Harrison/WFAE
Supports of a proposed sales tax increase for the arts attended Tuesday night's commission meeting.

Mecklenburg Commissioners voted 7-2 Tuesday night to let voters decide in November whether they want to increase the sales tax to pay for the arts, along with parks and greenways.

If voters say yes, the county's general sales tax would increase from 7.25 percent to 7.5 percent. That new quarter-cent sales tax would raise about $50 million a year.

The debate over placing a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the ballot wasn’t just about the arts.

Much of the back-and-forth was about economic mobility.

At times, commissioners who ended up voting to advance the tax – like Vilma Leake – disparaged the Arts and Science Council that’s pushing for the tax.

She said the smallest community groups need to receive money from the tax just as "those high-levels people who are handling this process of the arts, the elitists we call them."

"Don't get mad at me because I'm saying it, because it's a fact" she said.

Commissioners voted 7-2 to place the tax on the ballot. Pat Cotham and Elaine Powell voted no.

If approved  by voters, the tax is projected to generate $50 million in its first year. Commissioners voted to give the arts a little less than first proposed – about $22.5 million instead of $24 million.

Parks and Greenways would get $17 million. Education would get $8 million. The six Mecklenburg towns would divvy up $2.5 million for arts and cultural projects.

Cotham said she would support a sales tax hike for affordable housing.

"I have yet to have a single mother come to me, a struggling mother who is working two jobs, and say, 'If we could just have money for the arts, my life would be so much be better,' or a homeless man on the street," Cotham said.

The decision to place the quarter-cent sales tax on the ballot comes after the countywide property revaluation, and a property increase that was approved by commissioners last month. Neighborhoods near uptown have seen their property values surge, and many longtime homeowners are seeing their property tax bills increase by hundreds of dollars a year.

Commissioner Susan Harden tried to minimize the impact of the sales tax increase, which, if approved, would raise the Mecklenburg sales tax to 7.5%.

"When it comes to sales tax, North Carolina ranks 25th out of 50 states when considering the combined state and local sales tax rate," Harden said. "Tennessee is higher, ranking No. 1. Louisiana is higher, ranking No. 2."

That analysis, by the Tax Foundation, does rank North Carolina in the middle of the pack. But it doesn’t take into account that Mecklenburg already has a half-cent sales tax for transit, as well as a penny sales tax on prepared food and beverages.

And some states with higher sales taxes – like Florida and Tennessee – don’t have state income taxes.

But despite the questions about the impact of a higher sales tax, most commissioners – like Mark Jerrell —  thought more money for the arts is needed. The ASC has said it would use some of the money for arts programs throughout the city.

"It is imperative if we are to achieve our No. 1 goal of reducing racial disparities," he said. "That can only be achieved by a comprehensive approach, which should certainly include a robust arts community."

Five years ago, Mecklenburg Commissioners asked voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax, mostly for education but also for the arts. More than 61% of voters rejected the tax.

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.