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Teacher-pay tax divides county commissioners 

And Chairman Fuller faces end-of-semester exams

Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller got off to a rocky start when he assumed the top position last December, given that he got the job only by way of Commissioner Pat Cotham's ouster and a tense 5-4 split vote. Any attempts at forging a united board was going to be tough, though most of the members expressed predictable pronouncements about "working together for the good of the community."

Consider that effort dead, at least for the time being — a casualty of a contentious decision to place a referendum on the November ballot to add a quarter-cent sales tax to raise local teacher salaries, along with providing some assistance to Central Piedmont Community College, the libraries and struggling arts organizations. It was the first major test of Fuller's ability to lead the commission at its most fundamental level. But the Democratic-backed decision, which commissioners who opposed the referendum felt happened without much discussion, seems to have further divided a group fraught with long-standing dysfunction and has even gotten a cold reception from some Democrats in Raleigh.

The sales tax was narrowly approved by a 5-4 vote in mid-June. All four Republicans on the board and one Democrat, Pat Cotham, voted against it, later making stinging public remarks about the way it happened. The referendum will add one-quarter of one cent to every purchase, and 80 percent of what's collected would then go to raising teacher pay locally — but that increase would not show up in a paycheck before September 2015 at the earliest. The rest would go elsewhere: 7.5 percent to CPCC; 7.5 percent to fund various arts programs; and 5 percent to public libraries.

The dissenters on the commission said the process was rushed and worked out in advance by a select few, behind closed doors, and without proper consultation with the state (though all the county commissioners knew about the referendum a week before the vote, as it was on the meeting's agenda). That point was made by many people I talked to both within and outside of the board, among them former City Council member Lynn Wheeler, Charlotte's mayor pro tem — a Republican and well-connected pundit who was heavily involved in several contentious tax and bond referendum drives during her tenure. "I was stunned when I heard about this, because to my knowledge this was a decision made by five county commissioners without consulting the state, who has the constitutional responsibility to fund teacher salaries ... and at first glance, it seems to have been a shoot-from-the-hip reaction to intense, very vocal lobbying from teachers to the county commission."

The extent of the challenge Fuller is facing was crystallized recently when State Sen. Joel Ford, a Democrat and fellow Mecklenburg County resident, unleashed stinging criticism of the sales-tax proposal. Ford told WSOC-TV News that the commissioners should have contacted the county's state delegation before taking it up — and that he fundamentally opposed the idea. "The commissioners need to understand that they are not operating in a vacuum," Ford said, continuing, "[I am] disappointed ... in particular in the leadership of Commissioner Fuller for not going to Raleigh with this."

Ford's criticism appears to have bothered Fuller the most. "I was surprised at what Joel said," he told me. "I didn't know he was going to attack us. He had told me he disagreed with what we were doing, but that's different from attacking us publicly."

Fuller went on to reflect a bit on his first six months as chairman, at which point his voice began to sound more reflective and more passionate. "I resisted stepping forward for a long time," he said, "even when people were telling me it was something I needed to do. We were going through a tumultuous year, and it felt like we were adrift, and I thought we needed to go in a different direction, and at the end of the day, I knew I had to do something, for the betterment of the whole community. As far as the sales tax is concerned, I was afraid that the state wasn't stepping up and taking responsibility for what it needed to do for our teachers, and we can't stand by and leave our citizens at risk due to this kind of gamesmanship, and so I did what I felt we had to do."

As for that criticism from Ford, well, Fuller might like to know that the senator seems to feel bad about it now, telling me he was surprised to learn that his comments had been interpreted as an attack. "I definitely did not mean it to be seen as criticism of him," he told me. "What I was trying to do was to encourage some dialogue, to say that he should have come to the state delegation, because doing something like raising teacher pay is the state's responsibility, not the local government's, and he doesn't need to be bailing out the state when they're not doing what they need to do."

So what's next? None of the elected officials I spoke to believe that the referendum will be withdrawn by the commission — and almost no one believes that, at this point, it stands much of a chance of passing in November, though that may change, depending on what the General Assembly ends up doing regarding teacher pay.

A little more than a half year after assuming the top spot, the jury is still out as to whether Fuller can unite and lead his fellow Democrats in Mecklenburg County, let alone the commission as a whole. And the fate of the sales-tax referendum, teacher pay, and funding for the other projects on the list, including some struggling local artists and their organizations, remains in limbo.

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