News Column

Tax referendum supporters regroup after surprise start

August 19, 2014

By David Perlmutt, The Charlotte Observer

Aug. 19--Before her board endorsed Mecklenburg County's upcoming sales tax referendum, school board Chairwoman Mary McCray hailed the effort, but she wished her members had been included in the planning to get it to the November ballot.

McCray joined a list of elected and civic leaders who say they were caught off-guard when they weren't consulted before commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller and Vice Chairman Dumont Clarke went public with plans to put a quarter-cent tax increase before voters. The new revenues from the tax would largely go to augment pay for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees.

She said she didn't know about the effort until she read about it in a newspaper article after a June 10 commissioners meeting -- a week before commissioners voted 5-4 to place the referendum on the ballot.

"We were not at the table as a board during the planning stages, and we would have liked to have been able to help build a community consensus," said McCray, whose board endorsed the nonbinding referendum 8-1.

Historically, referendums stand a better chance with a unified front, since ultimately, voters will decide.

In Guilford County, where voters defeated similar referendums three times since 2008 during the recession, commissioners there have put another referendum on the ballot for public school education. School board Chairman Alan Duncan said his board requested commissioners to take up the measure again. They voted 7-2 to do it, and the measure appears to have a strong front of support.

"It's not a new conversation here," said commissioner Bruce Davis of High Point. "We've talked with the chamber, the school board and several other groups, and it's finally getting some traction."

In Mecklenburg, most groups agree that teachers need more pay and the arts and libraries deserve support. The criticism has focused on the process.

State legislators from Mecklenburg and Charlotte Chamber leaders have said they didn't know about the idea of a referendum until the effort was made public. Since then, chamber leaders said they've had discussions with commissioners but wanted there to be a "more deliberative dialogue."

Fuller acknowledges he would have liked to have had more discussion before the vote.

"I would have preferred that we could have gone around the whole community and had a conversation about all of this," he said. "But my concern was we didn't have the time."

The commissioners meet only once in July and once in August, he said, and there was a deadline to direct the elections board to put the referendum on the ballot.

Teacher pressure

The idea of raising the sales tax for teachers had been floated in the public weeks before the county commissioners' vote.

Clarke in early May told an education forum on teacher pay raises that a referendum was possible. He said the language on the ballot couldn't specify what the money would be used for, but commissioners could make it clear to the public what revenues from the extra tax would be used for.

Commissioners did pass a resolution specifying that 80 percent would go to pay raises for CMS employees; 7.5 percent to do the same at Central Piedmont Community College; another 7.5 percent would go to the Arts & Science Council and the balance to public libraries.

And when CMS leaders began lobbying commissioners to help raise teacher pay, commissioners alerted them that a sales tax referendum was an option, school board Chair McCray said.

"We knew there was a possibility for it," she said.

Fuller said the referendum became a more serious option in early May when teachers, principals and public school advocates began to pack commissioners meetings to push for pay raises.

By then, state lawmakers were in a deadlock over teacher compensation that continued until earlier this month.

It escalated May 19 after CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison requested $19.4 million for a 3 percent supplement for the district's 18,500 employees. On May 29, County Manager Dena Diorio unveiled her recommended budget, granting CMS' total request, except for the money for pay raises.

Twelve days after Diorio's recommendations, Fuller and Clarke went public with their pursuit of a referendum -- beginning a public discussion that has drawn support and criticism.

They touted it as a "sustainable" way to generate money for all four organizations, though a future board could change the policy and direct the money to different groups.

Fuller acknowledges that another board could reroute the funding, but it "would have to do it in public and that is hard." He's argued that the county has only two other options to supplement teacher pay at the $35 million a quarter-cent sales would bring. It could raise the property tax rate 3 to 4 cents, he said, or cut other services by the same amount.

Fuller said the effort "didn't necessarily come out of the blue."

"It's not exactly correct that we didn't talk to anybody," he said. "It is fair to say it wasn't the kind of conversation that perhaps has been had with other similar efforts."

Controversial idea

Fuller and Clarke knew the issue would draw controversy. In 2010, commissioner George Dunlap proposed a similar referendum during the county's recovery from the recession.

It died after Dunlap's motion got no second.

Some of the criticism came from state Sen. Joel Ford of Charlotte, a fellow Democrat who chastised Fuller for not consulting with the Mecklenburg delegation on the referendum.

Fuller said commissioners didn't need to get permission from legislators, who in 2007 gave counties authority to hold a quarter-cent referendum.

Two weeks ago, the Charlotte Chamber dove into the discussion, saying it wouldn't fund or direct a campaign to win approval. Yet chamber leaders said the organization's executive committee could ultimately endorse the referendum. The group plans to run a campaign for the city of Charlotte's $146 million bond referendum.

The county referendum has won support from the school board, local teachers organizations, MeckED and on Sunday, the local Black Political Caucus.

CPCC President Tony Zeiss has said without the chamber's help, recipients "would have to work harder" to get it passed. He said the college could seek private money to fund a campaign.

The effort was nearly derailed after state senators tried to cap the local sales tax rate statewide at 2.5 cents. Since Mecklenburg already levies that amount, another quarter-penny would have pushed it over the cap. The cap effort died in the N.C. House on Friday, but members of the House Rules committee approved a bill on Monday that would give Mecklenburg, Guilford and other urban counties until Dec. 31, 2016 -- instead of the end of this year -- to pass a quarter-cent sales tax referendum. The full House is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday.

For Fuller, determined to let voters decide the issue in November, the extension makes no difference.

"Either the legislature could take it away next year or something else could happen to keep us from being able to take advantage of this," he said. "If we ignore and don't do anything about keeping Mecklenburg County competitive (in teacher pay), we do it at our significant peril. If we want to do it, we have to do it now."

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(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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