Mecklenburg County commissioners are planning for a November referendum on a proposal that would raise the county’s sales tax by a quarter of a penny to pay for salary supplements for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees.
The tax increase could generate as much as $34 million and also would go to supplement salaries at Central Piedmont Community College and support the public library and the Arts & Science Council, board Vice Chairman Dumont Clarke said Tuesday.
Clarke and board Chairman Trevor Fuller are set to present the proposal at the commissioners meeting next Tuesday, the night the board is scheduled to vote on County Manager Dena Diorio’s proposed $1.5 billion budget for the coming fiscal year.
Fuller and Clarke said they have a solid five-vote majority to add the referendum to the November ballot. They said commissioners George Dunlap, Kim Ratliff and Vilma Leake also support the effort. “We hope there will be more,” Clarke said.
It comes on the eve of a public hearing Wednesday on Diorio’s recommendations that would give CMS all it requested, except for $19.4 million to give all its employees a 3 percent raise.
Commissioners are expecting a packed chamber of mostly CMS teachers and parents to advocate for better pay. North Carolina, they point out, is ranked 48th in the country in teacher pay and many said they have to work two, sometimes three, jobs to make a decent living. They said they may be forced to leave the state, or the profession, for better pay.
“What we’re doing is trying to address in a sustainable way the need to increase compensation for CMS and other employees,” Fuller said. “It’s clear that the state is not wanting to really step up to the task that needs to be taken. What this plan aims to do is put these issues before the people and let the people decide whether these things are important.”
Under their proposal, 75 percent of the money generated from the quarter-of-a-cent increase would fund pay supplements for CMS employees, 10 percent would go for salary supplements at CPCC, 10 percent to support Arts & Science Council operations and the remaining 5 percent would go to libraries, Clarke said.
Fuller said the effort is a longer-term solution since the earliest the county could begin collecting revenues would be April 2015 – provided voters approve the proposal.
“This is more aimed at sustainability than it is for the budget for the coming fiscal year,” he said. “We need to have a sustainable way to keep Mecklenburg attractive and competitive.”
Clarke said state legislators are discussing pay raises of 5 to 11 percent and “that’s certainly more than the average person is getting. What we’ve always done is supplement the state salary. This is just a continuation of that policy.”
He said the board would have to take away from other programs to satisfy the CMS request, and “there’s just no support to do that.”
The idea has circulated privately between commissioners, but Clarke told the Observer the discussions didn’t violate the state open meeting laws.
“There’s not been any private meetings with (a quorum of) five commissioners in the room,” he said.
The county’s sales tax is currently at 7.25 percent. That’s one of the highest in the state because of the special half-cent sales tax for mass transit, which has been levied since the late 1990s and is dedicated to the Charlotte Area Transit System.
There also is a special countywide penny sales tax on prepared food and beverages and a tax on hotel and motel rooms. Both fund tourism.
Since counties were given the ability to levy a quarter-cent sales tax, local officials have discussed a number of possible uses, including transit, highways and parks. But there have been no serious considerations about levying the tax until now.
Raising teacher pay remains CMS’ highest priority, Superintendent Heath Morrison said after Dirio unveiled her proposal.
Diorio said no one disputes that North Carolina teachers need more pay. But she said teacher raises have historically been a state responsibility, though the county has approved supplements to make pay more competitive.
She said that providing the money for teacher raises would set a precedent and make the county forever obligated, a prospect that could threaten Mecklenburg’s economic health.
Diorio recommended that the county’s property tax rate remain stable. Her budget would increase CMS funding by $26.8 million, or 7.4 percent, over what the county currently provides the district.