Mecklenburg County commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller on Thursday called for the county’s tax rate to remain unchanged and used his State of the County address to paint a prosperous portrait of Mecklenburg except for its “intractable” poverty.
Fuller based his call on better-than-expected revenues as construction continues to accelerate after the recession, with collections of property and sales taxes exceeding last year’s rate. He also said the financial hit from a legislative-required review of the 2011 revaluation has not been as severe as projected.
Added revenues from the state’s vehicle tag and tax program are expected between now and June 30, and collections of property and sales taxes are exceeding last year’s rate, he said.
County Finance Director Wanda Reeves said Mecklenburg had expected to bill for $94.5 billion in assessed property valuations. Through Dec. 31, the billings was for nearly $96 billion, she said.
“What this all means is that our revenue picture is getting brighter and, furthermore, we anticipate completing the year with a surplus,” Fuller said. “Because of this, I will be urging my colleagues to adopt a budget that has no increase in our tax rate for the coming fiscal year.”
His call came at the same time the city of Charlotte announced at a retreat that its budget outlook contains a 1.7 percent tax rate increase that may be needed to offset expected losses from revisions to the revaluation.
Commissioner George Dunlap said after Fuller’s address that the board should be able to hold the tax rate at the current level.
“I don’t think that will be a problem at all,” Dunlap said. “We’ve had some good reports in terms of our revenue projections, and we had a pretty good budget this year. Next year, we’ll be able to do even more without raising taxes.”
Fuller said he didn’t know if the increased revenues would mean more money for groups such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College. He invited those groups to the board’s retreat on Feb. 20 and 21, when commissioners will discuss priorities for building the 2014-15 budget.
Poverty a challenge
Fuller is the first board chair in four years to deliver a State of the County address. He used it to portray Mecklenburg as a robust, growing county with opportunity for everyone.
He referred to the past year of turmoil, when the board fired its county manager, was mandated by state law to review the revaluation and had the state force the county to merge MeckLINK – which oversees mental health services – with a Kannapolis-based agency.
Through all the changes has come new leadership – a new county manager, a new tax assessor, a new social services director and health director.
It has brought “a palpable sense of renewal,” Fuller said. He proclaimed Mecklenburg’s state as “good and getting strong every day.”
Yet its poverty rate puzzled – and startled – him, leading Fuller to announce that he’ll assemble a task force to find solutions to eradicate the problem.
More than 15 percent of the county lives below the poverty level, defined as a family of four earning $23,500 a year. Nearly 232,000 residents, or 25 percent, receive some sort of public assistance, primarily food stamps, Fuller said.
A recent study, he said, showed that Charlotte was ranked last in economic mobility among the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas. “When it comes to moving out of poverty, poor people in Charlotte have a much worse time of it than anywhere in the country,” he said.
It’s vital for Mecklenburg’s economic future that it find solutions to alleviate the problem, Fuller said.
He said the task force will include experts and leaders from academia, the business community, nonprofits, philanthropy and government.
The task force, he said, will be assembled in the next few weeks and take six months to a year to come up with recommendations for the board to pursue.
“I don’t expect this to be a study that sits on a shelf somewhere,” he told reporters after his address. “It’s going to be a blueprint for action. Because it has become so intractable, we can’t ignore this issue because it’s going to affect everything we try to do.”
‘Open for business’
Fuller said the county falls short of meeting the educational needs of students, particularly in the critical areas of science, technology, engineering and math – the STEM subjects.
The county provides substantial funding to CMS and CPCC. He called on the board to make “bold investments” in STEM education to prepare students for high-skills jobs.
Though thousands of new jobs were created last year, Fuller said the county can do more to generate jobs.
“We should encourage entrepreneurship and business expansion,” he said. “We must not get in the way.”
To the business community, he said the county is reviewing its permitting, inspection and code enforcement operations. County Manager Dena Diorio, he said, has raised the review to “a high priority,” working with the city of Charlotte and towns.
“She will be taking specific steps, and making recommendations to the board to address the concerns,” Fuller said. “All of this is to say that we will make sure Mecklenburg County is truly open for business.”
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