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Commissioners tentatively approve tax increase

After some tweaks and cuts, Mecklenburg County commissioners on Tuesday weren’t able to avoid a tax increase as they tentatively approved a 2013-14 budget.

Two weeks ago, interim County Manager Bobbie Shields proposed a nearly $1.7 billion budget that would require a 2.5-cent tax rate increase to keep services at their current level.

Tuesday, commissioners voted 7-0 to send a budget ordinance for a final vote next Tuesday that would include a 2.35-cent increase to the county’s tax rate.

Republican Commissioner Bill James left the meeting early, and fellow Republican Matthew Ridenhour didn’t vote.

The board did cut some funding for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and school nurses. But, in the end, they would have had to cut Shields’ recommended budget by $27 million to avoid a tax hike.

The 2.35-cent increase would put the tax rate back to where it was two years ago after commissioners cut the rate by 2.4 cents last year. Shields said the increase was necessary to maintain current services and offset a shrinking tax base as corrections are made in the flawed 2011 property revaluation.

Democrat Commission Dumont Clarke, first elected in 2000, said past boards have never rejected budget ordinances during his time on the board.

“Over all, I think it’s a very good budget,” Clarke said. “I would be surprised if it didn’t pass. We’d have to start the whole process over again if it didn’t.”

Republican Matthew Ridenhour said he was disappointed the board couldn’t find more cuts.

“We simply can’t always raise taxes,” he said. “What did we say ‘no’ to tonight?”

A county tax hike would follow one from the Charlotte City Council, which on Monday approved a 7.25 percent city property tax increase. That would mean the yearly city tax bill for a $200,000 home would be $63.40 higher. The proposed county tax hike would add less than $50 a year.

Clarke proposed cutting $2.2 million from funding to CMS that would have been used to match a 1percent state pay raise for teachers. But, he said, there are no bills in the N.C. Senate and House to raise teacher pay, so the county had nothing to match.

Republican Bill James, adamantly against a tax hike, tried to cut $7 million from CMS funding, but his effort failed. CMS had wanted a $28 million increase in funding, but Shields proposed $21 million. Instead, under the budget ordinance that commissioners will vote on, the district would get a $19 million increase.

James left the meeting before it ended, telling some commissioners he realized he didn’t have the votes to prevent a tax hike and that the increase would help him get reelected.

CPCC had asked for a $6.4 million increase in its operations budget, but was approved for $3.8 million, including an extra $750,000 over Shields' recommendation.

Perhaps the most emotional issue was school nurses. During commission meetings and at a public hearing on the budget, parents and advocates for more school nurses in CMS schools implored commissioners to increase the number of nurses by at least 10.

Shields recommended more than $11.3 million to fund the school nursing program, increasing current funding by a little more than $1 million to hire 10 new nurses and two administrators.

Yet, after a motion by Republican Karen Bentley, commissioners voted to cut $405,000 from the increase. Instead, $250,000 would go to Communities In Schools, and $155,000 to ImaginOn and Children’s Theater of Charlotte.

Bentley said the school nurse money could pay for the same number of nurses for half a school year, or for fewer nurses for the entire year.

“It’s a win-win,” Bentley said during a break. “It gets us closer to where we need to be and gives us a chance to look at the program and really understand what is needed.”

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061
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