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Mecklenburg County: CMS, CPCC bond wish lists too long

Mecklenburg voters this fall may decide their first bond referendum in five years, but some officials are adamant that emerging wish lists are too long.

No one knows how big a bond package voters will be asked to approve – but it’s likely to stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars for school, community college and other county projects.

Mecklenburg commissioners say they’ll have to balance an assortment of needs with the county’s ability to pay for all the programs.

The county may have no more than $140 million a year for construction or other capital projects, some commissioners said this week. That’s a sharp decline from a decade ago when it could borrow more than $250 million each year.

That means county agencies won’t get all the money they want, and projects won’t be finished as quickly as they hope.

The county pays for construction and other capital projects for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Central Piedmont Community College, parks, libraries, the Sheriff’s Office and other county departments.

The potential requests became a bit clearer this week as CMS detailed a plan for dozens of projects in the next few years. The district said it would cost $400 million for the top 25 projects on the list, though leaders have not made any formal request to county commissioners.

Meanwhile, CPCC says it’ll give commissioners a list of 10 projects costing $124 million that it would like to start over three years. Add in remaining projects from a 2008 park bonds, and potential needs at county facilities, and commissioners acknowledge they’ll have some tough decisions to make.

Democrat Trevor Fuller, an at-large commissioner, said the board needs to see the full list of requests before it decides which group gets what.

“It’s only fair to look at what everyone’s asking for,” Fuller said. “You can push down over here, and something pops up over there. I think we’ve got to see the whole landscape – what CMS asks for, what CPCC and Park and Rec asks for – before we start pushing.”

‘Debt diet’

Though some towns have had bond votes in recent years, the last countywide referendum came in 2008 when voters approved $250 million for parks and recreation.

But by the next year, the county delayed any new projects as part of efforts to get its construction spending under control. After two years of a “debt diet,” new projects were launched again in 2011-12. But the amount of money available for projects is restricted to how much is available in a special fund for debt, and is far less than what the county spent during the boom period.

The county also began a system of evaluating projects to determine which to pay for first, with a school renovation now being ranked against a park facility or county building.

Any proposed bond projects are expected to be ranked against any that have not yet been completed. Given those demands, some commissioners say it could take at least five or six years to get through school or other projects.

“People tend to think once (bonds are) passed that’s it and everything’s going to get done and promptly,” said Commissioner Dumont Clarke. “That’s never been the case.”

Said Parks Director Jim Garges: “The more projects that get thrown in the budget, the longer it takes anybody’s projects to get done because you only have limited amount of money going forward. So you just have to be patient.”

Garges said he doesn’t expect to ask for any new bond money until the 2008 bond projects are finished. A spokeswoman for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library said it currently doesn’t have any projects that will need money.

Criticism

Though neither CMS nor Central Piedmont have made formal requests yet to county commissioners, its leaders have begun making the case for their projects.

Both say their plans will help address enrollment growth, and also make it possible to expand some academic programs. For example, CMS plans to add science and math-related magnets at several schools.

At a joint press conference on Wednesday, Superintendent Heath Morrison and CPCC President Tony Zeiss also talked of ways they’re working together to teach students. They announced a new Medical Academy at Hawthorne High School where students will be able to use labs at the community college. They’ve also proposed expanding a program where high school juniors and seniors take classes at CPCC.

The CMS plan drew sharp criticism from Republican commissioner Bill James, who says the district might get about $65 million a year for projects. He doubted a three-year $400 million plan would get passed. He accused the district of leaving commissioners to make hard decisions about cutting projects.

Commissioners Chairwoman Pat Cotham also said the education requests could be cut. “They have champagne tastes and we have a Kool-Aid pocketbook,” Cotham said about CMS. “In business, you ask for what you want and negotiate for what you get.”

Superintendent Heath Morrison said the district crafted its capital plan using some preliminary information from county staff, but said the proposal will be refined in the coming weeks.

“When we get a specific amount ... we will scale that list up or down,” Morrison said. “Right, I think it’s fair to say we’ve done our homework, we’ve done what we’re expected to do. We put our needs out there and I think we tried to do it in new and innovative ways and we’ll work in partnership (with the county).”

CMS and CPCC are both expected to make their budget pitches to commissioners in May. The county board would have to agree by July or early August in order to get any bond requests on the ballot.

Bethea: 704-358-6013
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