• County commissioners discuss sales tax increase for arts referendum

    By: Joe Bruno

    Updated:

    MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. - Mecklenburg County commissioners heard from the public last week and discussed at length a sales tax increase for a dedicated revenue source for the Arts and Science Council.

    Mecklenburg County Commissioners are considering a referendum for a quarter-of-a-cent tax hike. The Arts and Science Council said it never fully recovered from the 2008 recession. The group said grant and donations have dropped.

    Ultimately, the county decided to push the discussion on revenue distribution to Tuesday. A vote on whether to put the measure on the November ballot will be on July 2.

    It was a last-minute full-court press by the Arts and Science Council ahead of a vote on July 2.

    The county manager said the sales tax will apply to things, including groceries, food in restaurants, diapers and medicine.

    There were different proposals to change the funding allocation but the Chair of the Commission, George Dunlap, cautioned against doing that.

    He said if the county changes it too much, the Arts and Science Council may not be as willing to run a campaign to get people to vote for it.

    With signs and cries of "arts for all," the local arts community packed the chamber last week in support of a sales tax increase referendum.

    "Arts and science organizations exist for the public good, therefore deserve public support," said Kathryn Hill, president of Levine Museum of the New South.

    [ALSO READ: Matthews leaders to vote on $25M budget featuring property tax increase]

    "The groups need a reliable and consistent form of funding to build their budgets," said Charles Bowman, Bank of America market president.

    The quarter-of-a-cent tax increase is expected to generate $50 million a year.

    Its main purpose is to provide a dedicated revenue stream for the Arts and Science Council. Under a proposal by Chair George Dunlap, the group would get 49 percent of the extra funds, which is $24.5 million. Parks and greenways would get 30 percent, which is $15 million. The teacher supplement would get a 16 percent boost, or $8 million. Individual towns would get the remaining 5 percent, totaling $2.5 million.  

    Some commissioners expressed a desire for more funding for parks or education. Commissioners are expected to officially decide the revenue distribution and who would manage the funds at their meeting on June 25. 

    The referendum appears to have the support of a majority of commissioners. Commissioners George Dunlap, Ella Scarborough, Trevor Fuller, Susan Rodriguez-McDowell and Susan Harden all expressed support for the measure.

    Dunlap called the tax increase minimal. He said one reason he is in favor of the increase is that it affects visitors to the county. 

    "Everybody who makes a purchase will pay a tax," Dunlap said. "Our citizens from Concord, Rock Hill, and those who pass through our airports, will all participate when they make a purchase."

    The current tax rate is 7.25 percent. A $20 bill purchase has $1.45 in sales tax. A quarter-of-a-cent tax increase would raise it to $1.50 in sales tax. 

    Commissioner Pat Cotham was the only commissioner to express opposition to the measure. Cotham believes it will unfairly target lower and middle-income families after many saw a property tax increase from the last budget. 

    "I worry about the timing of this," Cotham said. "We just did the revaluation and there are going to be some people who struggle with their new bills." 

    Commissioners Elaine Powell, Mark Jerrell and Vilma Leake said they were undecided on the measure. 

    Leake asked for more time to "ring the bell" in her community to get feedback. 

    "When I look at some of the art programs, many of my constituents cannot afford it," Leake said."Ballet, opera, many of my constituents cannot afford to participate because of the level of economics they experience." 

    ASC Charlotte currently receives $1.9 million from Mecklenburg County. 

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