*note: this article was first published in the Charlotte Observer
Beginning with early voting on October 16 and continuing to election day on Tuesday, November 5, Mecklenburg County voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on the following referendum question:
[ ] FOR [ ] AGAINST
Local sales and use tax at the rate of one-quarter percent (0.25%) in addition to all other state and local sales and use taxes.
The ballot language was written by the North Carolina General Assembly, and it fails miserably at offering enough detail for voters to be able to make an informed decision.
A “For” vote on this item is a Yes for one quarter of a cent sales tax increase–or 5 more cents on a $20 purchase. The tax would exclude groceries, prescription medicine, and gasoline but would apply to things like clothing and prepared food. It would allow us to generate more revenue from visitors who use our services but don’t reside in Mecklenburg County.
Our county has only three ways to generate revenue. Property tax makes up 60% of county revenue and has become increasingly regressive due to gentrification. Sales tax accounts for 17%, and the remainder of our revenue comes through fees. As long as North Carolina is governed by a state legislature that prioritizes income tax cuts, local governments that want to improve services will have few alternatives. For Mecklenburg County, increasing the sales tax is best option.
So what will those improvements in service look like if the referendum passes, adding an estimated $50 million to annual county funds?
$8 million of the revenue would go to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and would be used to add support staff such as school counselors and psychologists. At a time when students need more social and emotional support than ever, and our current staffing for these positions lags far behind recommended ratios, the additional personnel would be very welcome. It would also put more teaching assistants in elementary classrooms–where they are desperately needed after the General Assembly
has reduced their numbers by 31% over the last decade. Finally, the revenue would increase our local salary supplement and help make Mecklenburg County a more desirable place to teach for North Carolina educators.
$17 million of the money generated by the one quarter of a cent sales tax increase would be used to support Mecklenburg County’s parks and greenways. The nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) recently ranked Charlotte 96th out of America’s 100 largest cities after analyzing access, investment, acreage, and amenities. TPL noted that only 36% of county residents live within a 10 minute walk of a park, while the national average is 54%. Parks and greenways play a vital role in the social and physical health of our communities, and increased funding will help ensure that access to those opportunities does not depend on your zip code.
Finally, $22.5 million of the new tax revenue would be dedicated to funding local arts, science, history, and culture programs which currently receive only $2 million from the county. The additional support would increase equity in school field trips to arts and cultural organizations. Those experiences have been hard to come by since the recession and are often left to schools with well-heeled PTSAs. The funding would also allow for expansion of workshops and residencies offered during the school day, after-school and summer professional development opportunities, along with professional development for teaching artists and educators.
Please take the time to help educate your fellow voters on how the tax would work and where the revenue would go. Provided with enough information to make a sound decision, they can help bring much-needed changes that will improve our community for years to come.