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GOP commissioners critical of Meck budget plan

Republican County commissioner Bill James is charging five board Democrats with “spending like a drunken sailor” in the proposed county budget and currying political favor by funding unqualified groups that serve blacks and Latinos.

James and fellow Republicans Karen Bentley and Matthew Ridenhour are upset with the budget tentatively approved on Tuesday that would require a 2.35-cent tax increase to maintain current services.

The board voted 7-0 to send the proposed budget ordinance for a final vote on Tuesday. Ridenhour didn’t vote. Neither did James – he’d already left the meeting in quiet protest.

Parts of that proposal could change before the 2013-14 budget is finalized, but Democrat Dumont Clarke said that during his 13 years on the board budget ordinances had never been voted down.

James said Democratic commissioners – excluding Chairwoman Pat Cotham – weren’t interested in discussing making cuts to the budget. Instead, he said they began giving money to groups that county staff had disqualified for technical reasons.

He left the meeting because he “didn’t want any part of all the spending.”

He was particularly frustrated at Democrat Vilma Leake’s push for $75,000 for a summer program for at-risk youth at First Baptist Church West, and fellow Democrat George Dunlap lobbying for $165,000 for the Bethesda Health Center. Dunlap said the health clinic cares for patients mostly in the Latino community.

James said he felt the lobbying was “based on race.” Leake and Dunlap are black.

“It is one thing to have an honest disagreement about taxes, but it is quite another to hand out cash to groups based on race,” James wrote in an email to Cotham, Karen Bentley and Ridenhour. “The budget devolved from a general discussion about (county) priorities into political payoffs with tax dollars.”

Ridenhour agreed, saying the proposed budget cheats taxpayers.

“No one with an ounce of fiscal sanity, or basic economic understanding or integrity, can say that (the budget discussion) was anything short of a fleecing of taxpayers for pet projects and political favor,” he said.

Bentley, too, said she hurt for taxpayers.

“The majority of this board has no sensitivity for the plight of the taxpayer – it is all about more, more, more to sustain the beast,” she wrote in an email. “ … This is no way to grow our economy.”

No ‘political payback’

Each year, commissioners fund grants to outside groups that provide services for the county. In the proposed budget, the board has tentatively approved $3.9 million for 20 organizations that would provide 23 services, said Tiffany Waddell, a county enterprise management analyst.

The county requires each group to have a nonprofit 501c3 status and submit independently audited financial statements from a certified public accountant. They must provide a county mission: improve high school graduation rates; prevent health risks and diseases; promote financial self-sufficiency; or train and place unemployed workers.

Leake, who represents District 2, said her lobbying for the summer program at First Baptist West wasn’t a “political payback.” She said she’d visited the program in her district and saw “all the good work it was doing to keep children out of gangs and helping children with academics.”

The county apparently had disqualified the program from county money because First Charlotte West hadn’t provided “the necessary specificity” for performance measures, Waddell said.

But at a public hearing, the church’s senior minister, the Rev. Ricky Woods, appealed to the board for support, Cotham said.

“I am familiar with the good work Dr. Woods has done in the community for years, and I know he is well-regarded,” Cotham said. “I think that’s why the board was able to give his church the benefit of the doubt.”

Leake said she’s “appalled” at James’ comments. “I am not shocked at what Bill is saying,” she added. “That’s his mode of operation.”

She said her support for the program wasn’t based on race, or geography. “Those children are not all black,” Leake said. “They are children of all colors. And they come from across the community. Had Bill spent the time to see what the program is and the good work it does, he would have known.”

Just good business

Dunlap, who represents District 3, said the Bethesda clinic looks after 3,000 patients a year, mostly in the Latino community.

The clinic, he said, wasn’t qualified because the financial report it submitted wasn’t by a certified public accountant.

The board voted to give the clinic $165,000, but place it in a restricted contingency account until the clinic submits a financial audit from a CPA.

“They went through the process,” Dunlap said. “But the person who did the financials wasn’t a certified accountant.”

He said the county’s Health Department couldn’t see that many patients “for that kind of money. If I was a businessman, I’d say that’s a good business proposition.”

Meanwhile, Cotham has repeatedly said she doesn’t want a tax increase because of problems with the property revaluation, low wages and thousands unemployed in Mecklenburg.

She declined to respond to James’ charges.

“The district representatives advocate for groups in their district; that happens at every level of government,” Cotham said. “George and Vilma probably have 100 groups in their districts. But they don’t advocate for every single one.

“They advocated for the few groups they felt fit our mission as a county.”

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