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Pro sales tax forces have spent millions to impact public opinion

By Dave Vieser. This fall, voters in Mecklenburg County are being given the option to raise the local sales tax from 7.25 percent to 7.50 percent. Revenue from such a tax hike would raise approximately $50 million annually. About 45 percent would go to the arts, $17 million to parks and recreation, $8 million to education and $2.5 million to arts, culture projects and parks in the county’s small towns.

The referendum was cobbled together quickly earlier this year by the Mecklenburg Board of Commissioners, which apparently figured most voters would be supportive of such a measure in an off-year election. However, based on comments and positions staked out by officials in Cornelius and elsewhere, the referendum may be in trouble.

Locally, most of the Cornelius Town Board members and candidates have come out against the measure, fearing that the manner in which the funds might be spent would not necessarily benefit the town, where millions of dollars are already committed to the arts via the Cain Arts Center.

“The county doesn’t have a good record of equitable resource distribution so I am against it,” said Commissioner Dave Gilroy. Mayor Pro Tem Mike Militch agreed. “We can’t be sure any dollars will reach North Mecklenburg; meanwhile, we have urgent infrastructure and education needs.”

The only commissioner supporting the measure is Thurman Ross. “Arts dollars benefit Cornelius citizens, perhaps by grants or other funding. I say yes.”

Opposition was also voiced about the rate itself. “As a business owner, this would hurt us, make us less competitive, since we would then have the highest sales tax rate in the area,” said Tricia Sisson, Lake Norman Chamber Chair and a Town Board candidate.


Officially, the town is taking a wait and see approach. “The referendum represents an opportunity for County residents to voice their opinion,” said Town Manager Andrew Grant. “Should additional funds for parks, greenways, and culture be made available, careful consideration should be given by the County and all of the towns to determine how these funds would be spent, including prioritizing existing needs in these areas.”

Not everyone is against the measure. There is an active push under way by the Partnership for a Better Mecklenburg County, a consortium of neighborhood advocates, business leaders, as well as current and former elected officials to get the vote approved.

“When you vote for the referendum you will be voting to expand our parks and greenways” says former County Commissioner Darrell Williams, who is serving as the Partnership’s chairman.

“You will be enhancing neighborhood arts, and cultural programs – extending the arts in every single community. The quarter-cent sales tax will mean you pay 5 cents for every $20 dollars you spend,” he said.

The Partnership has launched a million-dollar media campaign, including ad placement in Cornelius Today, as well as special events.

But even the Charlotte Observer has come out against the referendum. “A sales tax hike would be regressive, meaning that it would disproportionately burden low-income families,” they said.

The proposed increase would follow a budget increase this year that resulted in  a tax increase for many Mecklenburg property owners. (Cornelius Today does not endorse candidates or ballot measures.)

In the end, it will be all up to the voters, in an election which will probably see a small turnout.

Historically, requests for an increase in the county sales tax for arts have not fared well. A 2014 countywide sales tax hike to benefit education and the arts failed by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin.