by Becki Gray
Former Senior Vice President, John Locke Foundation
Mecklenburg County Commissioners have decided to put a sales tax increase before the voters in November. Why? They claim it is for education, to give teachers a pay increase. Even while the General Assembly is locked in budget negotiations between a 6% raise (per the House) or an 11% raise (per the Senate). One thing is sure, NC teachers will be getting a raise this year. Do Mecklenburg County taxpayers have to pay more to make that happen?
A recent JLF report, By the Numbers tells us Mecklenburg County collected $802 million in property taxes and $248 million in sales taxes in 2008. By 2012, property tax receipts were up to $941 million, while sales tax revenue had fallen to $205 million. But yet they want to increase the local sales tax. Why? They say it is for education but as Michael Lowry points out, “Money is fungible, and counties can move money around as they please. Thus, what Mecklenburg and Guilford counties would like to do is tax more to spend more.”
And a lack of transparency, fumbling and apparently nefarious shenanigans by those pushing the sales tax increase isn’t playing well with the taxpayers a.k.a. voters of Mecklenburg County:
It started when commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller, Vice Chairman Dumont Clarke and three other Democrats on the Mecklenburg board of commissioners concocted their plan to put the quarter-cent sales tax on the ballot, largely intended for teacher raises, with little input from other stakeholders. The other commissioners learned about the initiative days before the June vote. Organizers had minimal communication with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the city of Charlotte, the business community, the legislature and the public, even though each group is directly affected by the move. That’s probably not the best way to win crucial early support.
Last week, Fuller bristled when Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour asked that the county clerk record the minutes at a meeting between CMS and county leaders about the referendum. Ridenhour had hoped to attend the meeting but was told he and other commissioners were not allowed. Given that, and given the importance of the topic, he at least wanted a summary of the meeting provided to commissioners.
Fuller shot back that he would not have the clerk be Ridenhour’s “personal stenographer” and suggested that because Ridenhour opposes the referendum, he has no right to be informed about it as talks progress. The tone and content of Fuller’s response was surprisingly and unnecessarily defensive. Fuller instead should be going out of his way to keep his board and the public informed.
Also last week, Clarke asked County Attorney Marvin Bethune the extent to which the county could use its (taxpayer-funded) resources to give the public “the facts” about the referendum. Innocuous enough, perhaps, except it’s a thin line between providing the public “the facts” about this referendum and promoting it. Clarke might want to publicize one set of facts, then opponents might want to use government resources to publicize other facts – including that commissioners can’t guarantee the money will be used primarily for teacher pay raises, as advertised. Better for the county to let advocacy groups and the press lay out the facts and let the voters decide.