Mecklenburg County commissioners ended their three-day planning session Friday by moving a push for more school nurses to the front burner.
After spending time building relationships and learning how a budget is constructed, commissioners were asked to set priorities to influence the budget for fiscal year 2014.
Their priorities remained largely unchanged from ones established last year. But they did move a category that includes school nurses into the highest priority grouping. County Manager Harry Jones will consider that group first as he proposes funding for 220 county services.
The top grouping includes money for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Central Piedmont Community College and retiring debt. Jones and other commissioners warned the move up doesn’t mean there will be more money for school nurses.
But many agreed it was a good idea.
“If we can afford it, it’s something we need to do,” Jones said Friday.
Before the recession, North Carolina legislators and county officials were working to meet a national standard of one nurse for every 750 CMS students. Jones said the county had added up to 25 nurses until the economy soured, stalling the effort as CMS enrollment continued to grow.
The push to add more nurses is being spearheaded by a group of parents with chronically ill or allergic children. They’ve created Parents Advocating for School Health that is lobbying PTAs and other parent groups to make their case.
As the recovery continues and planning begins for a new budget, Jones said he’s been hearing from school nurses and parents.
“It’s something I think makes a lot of sense,” he said. “We may not be able to go at the level it was before. It might have to be 10 to 12 (more) nurses a year.”
Teri Saurer, the advocacy group’s founder, said she understands that her issue will be in stiff competition for money, but was pleased that its visibility had been raised.
“I was very impressed that the current board of commissioners is recognizing the importance of the health and safety of our school-aged children,” said Saurer, whose 5-year-old daughter has food allergies. “I’m thrilled that they want to make it a high priority in Mecklenburg County.”
‘Toot our own horn’
Also Friday, Finance Director Dena Diorio told commissioners that Mecklenburg kept its AAA bond rating. Standard & Poor, Fitch and Moody’s gave the county high marks for its “fiscal discipline” that led to a rebound from the recession.
The ratings came after Jones and staffers met with the agencies in December. S&P and Fitch based their rating, in part, on Mecklenburg’s large and diverse economic base and efforts to cut debt. Moody’s cited “effective management” during the downturn.
As revenues dropped and debt became a larger portion of the budget (about 20 percent in 2008) the county looked for ways to cut debt, including pay-as-you-go projects and creating a debt fund, Jones said.
“By any standards, 20 percent is too much debt,” he said. “So we went through a debt diet to do things to live within our means. I’m proud that even through the downturn, we were able to sustain our AAA bond rating.”
General Manager John McGillicuddy told the commissioners that the news won’t make headlines in local media.
“These …are sterling reports and should be in the minds of Mecklenburg residents as an illustration of excellence in governance and management,” McGillicuddy said. “If you want to communicate to the public about what is being done well by the board and staff, this is No. 1 on your list.”
Commissioner Vilma Leake told McGillicuddy he shouldn’t rely on local media “to toot our own horn.”
“We, ourselves, need to toot our own horn,” Leake said. “He who tooteth not his own horn, it is not tooted.”