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Commissioners set to take preliminary vote on tax hike

A day after Charlotte City Council approved a tax increase, Mecklenburg County commissioners are set to take a preliminary vote Tuesday night on whether they will increase the county tax rate by 2.5 cents to pay for services.

Two weeks ago, interim County Manager Bobbie Shields proposed a nearly $17 billion budget that would require the tax increase to maintain the current level of services and offset a shrinking tax base as property values are corrected from the flawed 2011 revaluation.

If a polling of the board’s six Democrats at a Mecklenburg Democratic Party meeting Monday night provided any indication, some level of tax increase by the county stands a good chance of passing.

Monday, City Council approved a 7.25 percent property tax increase to pay for a capital plan. For a home valued at $200,000, that would raise yearly tax bills by $63.40. Shields’ proposed tax hike would add an additional $50.

Commissioners are scheduled to approve a budget on June 18.

Only Chairwoman Pat Cotham said she wouldn’t vote to support a tax increase.

“I wish we had a whole lot of money because there is a lot of need,” Cotham said. “I worry that a lot of people are going to lose their unemployment benefits on July 1. I worry about unemployment and wages being so low. These are tough times and we’ve got to make tough decisions.”

Three Democrats – George Dunlap, Dumont Clarke and Vice Chairwoman Kim Ratliff – said they will vote for the full recommended increase. Democrats Vilma Leake and Trevor Fuller said they could vote for an increase if one is necessary.

Fuller sounded ready to vote for an increase “of some kind.”

“While people extol the importance of funding education, you can’t do that by choking off the resources,” he said. “Our (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools) district is growing. Last year, we thought it was going to grow by 1,100 (students) and it turned out to be 2,000. We know it’s going to grow next year. The long and short of it, it takes more money to meet that growth.

“We as a county need to decide that we’re going to invest in that growth.”

Leake could become the deciding vote on the issue but sounded less sure. Yet she did say she could vote for a tax hike if she’s convinced it’s necessary.

The six Democrats were invited by the local party to attend Monday’s town hall-style meeting. Clarke, first elected in 2000, said he’d never been invited to answer questions by the local party.

Some of the questions – and comments mainly by Dunlap and Ratliff – concerned the split within the ranks of the six Democrats. Most of it was directed at Cotham.

On some votes, particularly the vote in early May to fire County Manager Harry Jones, Cotham, Leake and Fuller sided with Republicans Bill James, Karen Bentley and Matthew Ridenhour.

Monday, Dunlap said Cotham has excluded the other three Democrats from conversations. He said the Democrat-controlled board doesn’t function like one because “two of the Democrats (Cotham and Leake) are always helping the Republicans control the board … When the leadership chooses people to work with and excludes others, it makes it difficult for the Democrats to work together.”

Ratliff said Cotham has omitted her from serving on committees. Ratliff had requested to chair a committee to help search for a new county manager. But Cotham not only didn’t let her chair the committee, but left her off altogether.

Some in the audience told the commissioners that their bickering isn’t playing well to the public.

“You need to represent the people that you said you were going to represent,” said Sandra Haynes a member of Mecklenburg County Democratic Women. “…I’m not pointing any fingers, but you have a job to do. You guys are wasting time – get back to the business of the Democratic Party.”

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