Interim Mecklenburg County Manager Bobbie Shields recommended a 2.5-cent tax rate hike Tuesday, largely to maintain current county services and help offset a shrinking tax base after the botched 2011 property revaluation.
If approved, the tax increase the first in five years would add $50 to the county tax bill for a home valued at $200,000.
The proposed $1.68 billion budget for 2013-14 would be a 17 percent increase over the countys current $1.43 billion budget. Shields said much of the $225 million increase comes from state and federal Medicaid money to pay for mental health services through the countys MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare.
Some commissioners have said they wouldnt support a tax increase. But none expressed opposition after the presentation by Shields and Hyong Yi, the countys budget director.
Shields said the proposed budget was built around keeping and sustaining current services, some of which have seen a growth in demand.
The proposed budget would increase money for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, pay for the completion and opening of the Romare Bearden Park uptown, keep libraries open longer and provide a 2-percent merit pay raise for county employees.
The budget recommendation was Shields first big duty after he was elevated to interim county manager two weeks ago, after the board fired longtime County Manager Harry Jones.
Tuesday, he worked to sell it to a board that includes four new members.
He touched on three main themes that he hoped the budget would address: Maintaining and strengthening county services, building partnerships and relationships in the community and supporting employees whom Shields said are traumatized by Jones firing and outside criticism.
Addressing the new members, Shields said adopting a budget is a matter of weighing choices and consequences.
Its an either/or decision, he said. We cannot maintain the current property tax rate and maintain current services or even address growth needs.
Shrinking tax base
The budget talks come as county officials try to respond to criticisms of the flawed 2011 revaluation. The county said its tax base which is key in figuring out how much money can be raised through taxes will shrink by $1.9 billion as adjustments are made to thousands of overvalued properties.
The proposed budget doesnt address refunds to overbilled property owners. Shields and Yi said refunds would likely come from the countys fund balance.
Its worth emphasizing that we have a smaller tax base, Yi said in an interview. Even if Bobbie wasnt proposing a 2.5-cent tax increase, if you want to fund the budget at the same level in 2014 as in 2013, he would need a higher tax rate simply because the tax base is shrinking.
The proposed tax hike would essentially offset a 2.44-cent tax rate cut that commissioners gave property owners for the current year.
If they adopt the budget as Shields presented it, increased funding would include the following:
• Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which would get an increase of $21.3 million. School officials, however, had asked for a $28.5 million increase over the current budget, to expand classroom technology and magnet programs and help cover rising costs and enrollment growth.
• Central Piedmont Community College, which would get $3 million more (an 11.2 percent increase), less than half the $6.4 million that college officials requested.
• County services, which would get an $8.7 million increase. That includes homeless services ($1.3 million more), Park and Recreation ($966,000 more), school health nurses ($1.07 million more). The proposed budget would also give $1.8 million more to the tax assessors office, which came under fire for inflating property values and poor customer service during the revaluation controversy.
• County payroll, which would increase by 2 percent, or $4.8 million more than the current budget provides.
Upcoming budget talks
Commissioners wont vote on the budget until June. Judging from questions by commissioners after the presentation, it could end up looking vastly different.
Commissioner Bill James, a Republican who has said hed be against a tax increase, said the proposed budget was not revenue-neutral.
A revenue-neutral budget doesnt include a tax increase, James said.
In an interview, Shields said he expects resistance from commissioners on the tax rate hike, but he felt theres sufficient justification for an increase to maintain the current level of services.
Yi said the budget is Shields proposal. But since the plan was well underway when Jones was fired, it has Jones influence.
It should go without saying we didnt just walk in here and put this together, Shields said. You will see deviations from what Harry had in mind. If he were here, the outcome would be different.
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