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Politics

Voters Reject Mecklenburg Arts Sales Tax

Updated 12:05 a.m.

Mecklenburg voters overwhelmingly went against raising the sales tax by a quarter-cent to raise money for arts and cultural programs, as well as parks and education.

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Five years ago, 61% of Mecklenburg voters rejected a similar quarter-cent sales tax increase that would have funded education and the arts.

This year, the group Partnership for a Better Mecklenburg raised more than $1 million from businesses like the Carolina Panthers, Duke Energy and Wells Fargo to convince voters to increase the sales tax.

But despite TV ads and mailers, the tax lost again – and the margin was only a little closer. Fifty-seven and a half percent of county voters rejected the tax.

Former Mecklenburg Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, a Republican, led the effort against the tax. He raised about $1,500 dollars. 

"Well I don’t think that voting against it was so much against the arts, right?" he said. "It was really more of a vote against public dollars going to a private organization, the arts and science council, to be distributed in some sort of undetermined manner at this point manner."

The tax lost in most Mecklenburg precincts, and support was mostly limited to neighborhoods in and around uptown Charlotte.

By state law, the ballot language only asked voters whether they wanted to raise the sales tax. The county wasn’t allowed to say on the ballot how the money would be spent.

"We knew that the ballot language was very unfriendly," said Commissioner Susan Harden, a Democrat who defeated Ridenhour last year. "I mean, we’re a big community. In order for you to overcome the ballot language you have to educate people. And no matter what the issue is, we know from our research on this … people start at no."

In asking for the tax, the Arts and Science Council, a non-profit, said that its traditional source of donations – workplace giving – had declined significantly. The ASC said that funding for arts and cultural programs are in crisis.

The tax was expected to raise $50 million in its first year.

But rather than dedicate all of the money to the arts, Mecklenburg commissioners voted to allocate nearly half of the money to parks and greenways, as well as education. They believed those areas need more funding, and that including parks and schools would make voters more likely to approve it.

ASC president Jeep Bryant said the advertising campaign focused on parks and schools because many voters only associated the tax with the arts, which still would have received the largest portion.

"There’s been some discussion of why did the advertising shift to parks and education," Bryant said. "We were finding through the research we were doing that people recognize the arts component of this, but weren’t as aware of the potential to invest more fully in parks and greenways and the schools."

Bryant wouldn’t say what the ASC’s next step will be to try and raise more money.

One possibility would be to ask the county and the city of Charlotte for more money from their general funds, which are mostly funded by the property tax.

Mecklenburg Commission chair George Dunlap, a Democrat, says the county could discuss that in early 2020, when it starts planning for the budget.

"To do that doesn’t necessarily mean raising taxes," Dunlap said. "It could be shifting priorities, it could be the revenue that naturally happens as a part of the growth. So there are lot of ways to address that."

Dunlap says “there’s no rush” to find new money for the ASC.

In 2017, the ASC’s revenue was $16 million. The tax would have given the group $22.5 million.

RELATED LINK: See Full Coverage of the 2019 Elections

RELATED LINK: See Full Coverage of the 2019 Elections