One-on-one with former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt on the proposed sales tax for mobility

Updated: Dec. 7, 2020 at 6:04 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt said he was hesitant to take on a new assignment. After all, it had been more than thirty years since he had served the City of Charlotte as mayor.

“When the mayor asks you, and I imagine when the mayor asks any citizen to do something for the good of the city, it’s very hard to turn that down,” Gantt said.

Gantt has been leading the Charlotte Moves Task Force since May and sat down with WBTV for a one-on-one interview after the committee concluded its final meeting.

Beyond the burden of being asked by Mayor Vi Lyles, Gantt said he saw the importance of the task force’s mission.

“I see us growing dynamically, far beyond what I could imagine than when I was in local government,” Gantt said.

“But I also saw us moving in a direction that was not very good, that would not make us competitive with the cities we need to be competitive with.”

“And part of that problem is that almost 80 percent of the people in this city get where they’re going by car.”

During his interview with WBTV, Mayor Gantt pointed out that most of the mobility projects discussed by the task force, whether that’s the Silver Line, greenways, bike lanes or sidewalks, were already part of the city’s long-term plans.

The task force saved the most controversial part of the project for their last meeting: identifying the funding mechanism.

After pitching the possibility of increasing both sales and property taxes in their second to last meeting, city staff recommended pursuing a one percent increase to the county-wide sales tax. During the task force meeting city staff estimated it would cost a family earning $60,000 per year an extra $180. It would raise a total of $6.6 billion over thirty years, enough to finance the estimated local cost of the project if the city is able to secure state and federal grants for the project.

But the pathway to getting the sales tax increase isn’t easy.

- City council would need to approve the task force’s recommendation.

- The North Carolina General Assembly needs to approve the sales tax increase.

- Mecklenburg County voters would have final say in a referendum on the November 2021 ballot.

If the sales tax approach doesn’t work, Plan B is to go to voters to with a CIP bond request to fund the project. But that likely wouldn’t work unless property taxes were raised.

WBTV asked Mayor Gantt how he would pitch the sales tax to voters who are already struggling financially.

“They’re going to find when we build out the system, and that’s why we have to build all parts of it, that it’s going to cost them less to get to work and that in itself is going to be a reduction that will overcome the cost of the additional tax,” Gantt said.

“If the system connects to where the jobs are then there are going to be more people employed and we won’t see people stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder.”

“And that, I think, most citizens, even the poorest citizens, can relate to why I would support such an increase in my taxes.”

Mayor Gantt also sounded optimistic about getting the state legislature to approve of a proposed sales tax increase.

“I have a lot of confidence in the mayor and the council to be able to first convince our local delegation to the general assembly and then I expect them to do some work also in convincing the general assembly that Charlotte really needs to have this opportunity.”

“If our large urban areas are not competitive that’s not good for the state,” Gantt said.

During their last meeting, several task force members questioned whether the estimated $4-6 billion of local costs was an accurate reflection of the price of the project. The city is yet to give a detailed estimate of the cost of the Silver Line, which is expected to be the most expensive part of the project.

Gantt said he was surprised there were questions about the cost of the project.

“I really had not heard much from the task force about that $4-6 billion we need to raise,” Gantt said.

“That one cent and that $6.6 billion does not factor in the dynamic growth we expect in the region. If you took that into account, I suspect we’ll have enough dollars to afford what we plan to do.”

Mayor Gantt predicted that a majority of council members will vote in support of the task force’s recommendation but said that council still had a lot of work to do.

“They have to work out some of the details that the task force has no ability to.”

“Council has to balance priorities, how much it’s going to spend on mobility, how much has to address other issues the city faces.”

The task force added two more items for the council to debate when they hear the task force recommendations. During their last meeting the task force prioritized funding a program to fight against gentrification and displacement along the transit corridors and also exploring the possibility of free transit in some cases.

WBTV asked Gantt about both issues.

“Some of us our haunted by the notion of how we did major infrastructure improvements thirty-five, forty years ago when I first got into local government and how certain communities were just simply destroyed,” Gantt said.

“We should not see that happen and I applaud the task force for thinking of a way we could fund this.”

On free transit Gantt said that the making transit free in some cases would even out the impact of a regressive sales tax that would cost the same to residents, rich or poor.

“Additional ways that we can lighten the burden for people at the bottom of the economic ladder is talk about fare free days,” Gantt said.

“They spend better than half of their income paying for housing and paying to move about the community, and with this Transformational Mobility Network that burden is going to be reduced substantially.”

Gantt is presenting the Charlotte Moves Task Force recommendations to Charlotte City Council on December 14th.

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