As Mecklenburg County commissioners prepare to establish priorities for the fiscal year 2014 budget, they were loaded down Thursday with a buffet of competing economic forces.
On day 2 of a three-day planning conference, the board heard from two economists that jobs were returning to the county, but not the high-paying jobs that propelled Mecklenburgs economy before the recession.
Overall, wages are down by 15 percent since early 2008, the start of the recession, said UNC Charlotte economist John Connaughton.
Were creating jobs, but were creating income, Connaughton told commissioners.
From Wells Fargo Bank economist Michael Brown, they heard that Charlottes housing prices have climbed about 7 percent over last year and home construction is on the rise.
Yet consumers arent spending the way they did before the recession.
Theyre still struggling to find reasons to be confident, Brown said. The economy is growing, but its still fragile.
From Hyong Yi, the countys budget director, they learned that sales tax revenues are up by 5 percent, but property tax revenue is down. County expenses, Yi said, are outpacing revenues.
Commissioners will have to consider these, and many other factors, when they give County Manager Harry Jones and his staff direction for creating a new budget. The board spent Thursday getting a lesson on how the county is performing and how a budget is developed.
Friday, theyll set priorities.
Weve tried to provide the board a context for their decision making, Yi said. Their challenge will be difficult to balance the need for revenue to provide services and being mindful that we want to keep the tax rate as low as possible.
Board Chair Pat Cotham said creating a new budget and tax rate will take tough decisions.
We have to be mindful that families have less money and are carrying a lot of financial burdens, Cotham said. We also need to figure how we can cut expenses. Its easier to lead when times are good.
Commissioners Karen Bentley and Bill James, both board veterans, said theyd like to see the board set a tax rate or at least discuss one early on and direct Jones to build a budget around that.
That way the county manager and groups that get money like (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools) will know where our thinking is on what we desire as a tax rate, said Bentley.
Shed like to see the tax rate cut by another penny. Last year, commissioners cut taxes by 2.44 cents, to the lowest rate in eight years.
I dont think we lowered it enough to begin with, Bentley said. We need a tax cut to help balance out the increase in the check that people are writing in property taxes.
She said the boards priorities will require a dual discussion.
Because wages are down and unemployment is still too high, you have the whole dynamic of providing safety net services, which is an expense Bentley said. But you also have the tax burden that property owners have to assume when their income is down.
Jones and other commissioners say its too early to determine a tax rate.
Id prefer to live with the growth revenue from the existing tax rate, said Commissioner Dumont Clarke. Id certainly consider a reduction in the existing rate. But Ive heard things today that I think would make that very challenging.