Both sides gear up for fight over sales tax referendum

As Mecklenburg voters prepare for the November referendum, those for and against the measure are working to sway the undecided.

Darrel Williams, who chairs a coalition advocating for a quarter-cent sales tax increase to support local arts, parks and education, speaks during a debate Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church. Photo: Qcitymetro

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt taken from today’s Morning Brew newsletter. Sign up to have Morning Brew delivered to your in-box.

Two things in life are certain, they say – death and taxes. We just found a third – debate over taxes.

As Mecklenburg voters prepare for a November referendum that will decide the fate of a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase to fund local arts, parks and education, those for and against the measure are working to sway the undecided.

A show of force: At the Carole Hoefener Center on Friday, a coalition in support of the proposed increase held a kickoff event that offered free performances by community artists. Calling themselves The Partnership For A Better Mecklenburg, they want to show that arts aren’t just for the uptown crowd.

Not to be outdone, a coalition opposed to the tax increase has launched a campaign under the moniker The Mecklenburg Tax Alliance. The group is led by former Mecklenburg Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, a Republican who lost his seat in 2018.

Both sides come together…well, sort of: The opposing sides got together on Sunday at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church to debate the issue. In the “for” corner was Darrel Williams, a local architect tapped to lead the “vote yes” campaign. In the “against” corner was Ridenhour, who acknowledged a distaste for tax increases of any kind.

Some arguments for: Williams listed a string of U.S. cities that already have passed similar tax hikes in support of local arts. Without a dedicated funding source in Mecklenburg, he said, our county stands to fall behind those competitor cities in the push to attract new businesses. Williams also said a dedicated funding source is the best way to ensure that all communities in Mecklenburg – rich and poor – will benefit from the arts. He described the arts as a potential driver for economic mobility in poor communities, a way to give poor children a vision of success that goes beyond sports. He also noted that part of the tax would go toward education, as well as to improve and expand county parks.

Some arguments against: At a time when the city and county are focused on affordable housing and public education, Ridenhour said, funding the arts should not be a tax-raising priority. He said that while his group does not oppose the arts, its members believe that the arts should be funded through private means. Ridenhour also said that there is no provision in the state’s enabling legislation that would prevent Mecklenburg officials in the future from shifting those tax dollars away from the arts to satisfy new priorities.

By the numbers: If approved, the referendum would add a quarter-cent to the county’s 7.25% sales tax. That would amount to 5 cents on a $20 purchase and raise $50 million each year. Commissioners voted to allocate 45% of the money ($22.5 million) to the Arts and Science Council, which supports museums, educational programs and arts organizations. Another $17 million would go to parks and greenways; $8 million to education; and $2.5 million to arts and culture projects and parks in the county’s small towns.

Click here to read the rest of today’s Morning Brew.

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