Where do you stand on the arts tax?
It seems like everyone has an opinion — and yes, it may just seem like it to me as editor of a paper that focuses heavily on arts and culture. I’m well aware that for a local-only election in which there are very few competitive races, we’re about to learn very quickly that a majority of people living simply don’t give a shit which way this referendum goes, regardless of the endless discussion from local media and members of the arts scene. But in the end, it is inarguably an important issue, so humor me for a minute. For those of you who don’t give a shit (yet), let me fill you in on where we’re at with the so-called arts tax.
On July 2, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted to place a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the November 5 ballot, early voting for which has already begun. The BOCC has proposed to allocate 45% of the estimated $55-million in revenue gained from the tax increase to arts and culture, with the rest going to parks and greenways (34%), education (16%) and smaller towns in Mecklenburg County (5%).
On Sept. 4, the BOCC voted to allow a restructured Arts & Science Council to govern the potential revenue that will come from a new quarter-cent sales tax if it’s passed. However, board members stopped short on deciding who will make the final decisions on grant spending.
According to that model, a “reenvisioned” ASC would downsize, cease all programming and no longer do fundraising. According to the county presentation, the new ASC board of directors would ensure that equity was the leading priority for distribution of funds throughout the county, while also promising to focus plenty of their resources on independent artists rather than the large institutions they’ve been known to prioritize in the past. There are no concrete plans for what that would look like in terms of percentages or programming, however, so we just have to take their word for it.
Many folks have come out with strong opinions about the tax, and perhaps most interestingly, these opinions don’t appear to be split along any of the predictable lines — political party, race, tax bracket, etc. An Oct. 28 live taping of Charlotte Talks dedicated to the potential sales tax increase will feature former Republican Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour and current Democrat Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham standing together as opponents of the increase.[Note: If you can’t make it, look for a review of the discussion here at qcnerve.com. You can also find recent op-eds about the sales tax from city council member and Levine Museum employee Braxton Winston (for) and New South Progressives co-founder Ray McKinnon (against) on our site.]
Cotham and Ridenhour’s respective opinions are each indicative of common arguments against the tax. As a longtime advocate for the homeless and underprivileged, Cotham believes arts should not be the county’s priority when spending a $26 million windfall. As an organizer with the Mecklenburg Tax Alliance, Ridenhour doesn’t believe we should be upping the sales tax at all, regardless of what it would be spent on.
I tend to lean more toward Cotham’s point of view, but arts funding does help deal with problems we see with inequity in our community, if indirectly. For example, I mentor a local boy that I connected with through Big Brothers Big Sisters Central Carolina and have been hanging out with for five years now. (That’s a whole other column but I will leave you with this advice: mentor if you can. Just do it.)
Over those years, we’ve taken part in any number of programs at local arts institutions like the Harvey B. Gantt Center, where most recently he attended a coding workshop and took to it naturally, inspiring us to look into more ways to get him involved in coding.
Those are the programs that need funding, and I wholeheartedly support doing so in any way we can. But the question remains: Where exactly is the money going? How can we ensure that the arts funding will not only go to a diverse range of programs, but prioritize ones that help bridge equality gaps and increase opportunities? How can we funnel some of that money into funding similar arts programming in schools — especially Title I schools — and other more accessible places?
At the Sept. 4 meeting, the ASC presentation to BOCC regarding how the organization plans to restructure and where they want to put the money left a lot to be answered for. By the time the commissioners had a chance to discuss it, some were confused about what they were even voting for.
Commissioner Trevor Fuller expressed concern that the ASC would be in charge of spending $25 million without any input from elected officials, and county manager Dena Diorio pointed out that ASC gave out 800 grants last year alone, making it difficult for the BOCC to oversee each decision. To Fuller’s point, county and city representatives would sit on ASC’s newly structured board, but the confusion at that meeting convinced me that the county just isn’t ready to vote on this tax raise.
Why can’t we come we come back to it next year, when a presidential election will bring exponentially more people to the polls, and everyone involved will be better informed about what it is they’re voting on? Informed people give a shit.