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Public speaks on Mecklenburg County budget

More than any other part of the drawn-out process of creating a yearly budget for Mecklenburg County, Thursday night’s hearing was the essence of democracy – five hours of the people having their say.

One by one, nearly 70 Mecklenburg residents stood and tried to persuade county commissioners to fund their cause.

Many sat in the packed chambers holding signs with their messages, or wearing T-shirts that told which schools they represented.

In many ways, it was a civics lesson on the services the county provides: to prevent and diminish homelessness and domestic violence, to fund arts programs and keep libraries in books and ebooks, and to fund schools.

Teri Saurer, a mother of a child with food allergies, and more than a dozen others advocated for more school nurses in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

“A full-time nurse can be more than twice as effective as a nurse who splits her time between two schools,” Dr. Jessica Saxe of the Mecklenburg Medical Society told commissioners. “Healthy children learn better and school nurses keep our children healthy.”

Students in Studio 345 – a youth development program that uses digital media arts to educate and inspire students to stay in school – told of how the Arts & Science Council program had turned their lives around and urged commissioners to continue funding.

And county employees stood before the board imploring them to fund a pay raise for 4,500 county workers.

So, too, did CMS teachers and their advocates.

“Salaries have been frozen for three years,” said Veronica Talton, representing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. “A raise is not an option, it’s a necessity. One third of the staff where I work have part-time jobs. The reality is that quality educators are leaving the district. …

“I humbly ask the (commissioners) to please support the proposed budget and the cost-of-living increase.”

Parents spoke fervently for renovating old schools and building new ones, such as Northwest School of the Arts.

Perhaps the loudest applause came after four J.M. Alexander Middle School students spoke.

Sixth grader C.J. Ciuca asked the commissioners to close their eyes and imagine when Alexander was built 53 years ago. Then he asked them to imagine 50 years later, when the school had grown to three times the enrollment.

C.J. stood with classmates Cresant Williams, Ugochi Alogie and Nadia Bey. He told commissioners the school has to have assemblies by grade because the auditorium is too small. He said there’s not enough electricity to power a school-wide Wi-Fi system.

There’s no sick room. The classrooms are vastly overcrowded.

“We request a new school for J.M. Alexander,” C.J. said.

Parents and teachers spoke in support of a bond referendum for school construction. CMS officials are concerned that the county’s re-ranking of school building priorities wouldn’t relieve overcrowded schools and could doom a referendum in November.

CMS officials last week sent emails to parents and teachers urging them to speak at Thursday’s hearing. But they provided a wrong link to sign up, and so their request to speak was put off to late in hearing, near the end of the list of speakers.

And for more than five hours, the commissioners could only sit and listen.

“The budget reflects the priorities of the community,” said first-term commissioner Trevor Fuller, who is working on his first county budget. “The fact that we had the public come to tell their government what they want in the budget is the very essence of democracy.

“That’s really quite powerful.”

They all want a piece of what could be a nearly $1.7 billion budget for 2013-14.

That’s the amount that interim County Manager Bobbie Shields recommended last week. It represents an increase of about $225 million, or 17 percent, over the current $1.43 billion budget. Much of the increase would come from state and federal Medicaid money to pay for mental health services through the county’s MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare.

To get to the recommended budget, Shields proposed a 2.5-cent tax increase – or an extra $50 for the owner of a home valued at $200,000.

Shields proposed the tax increase – generating $27 million – to maintain current services, and offset a shrinking tax base as property values are corrected after a flawed 2011 revaluation.

Some commissioners such as Republican Bill James said this week they wanted a budget that doesn’t include a tax increase.

Shields said the proposed budget “is my recommended budget,” and that it would be up to commissioners to decide what needed to be cut.

James said he was concerned that the tax hike was proposed to generate money for refunds on over-valued properties.

“I don’t think it would sit well with taxpayers if their taxes were raised to pay for their refunds,” James said.

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061
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