County manager: Meck taxpayers could see a tax cut

02/20/2014 8:03 PM

02/21/2014 6:38 AM

With better-than-expected property and sales tax revenues, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said Thursday she sees no reason why county commissioners would need to increase the county tax rate as they consider a new budget.

In fact, Diorio said, a tax cut “is absolutely an option.”

“All (Mecklenburg) revenues are really strong. Fund balances are strong and reserves are really strong,” she said after the first of a two-day commission budget retreat at Central Piedmont Community College’s Harris Campus. “So we believe that we will be able to fund everything that I believe needs to be funded within the existing tax structure.”

She said the financial hit from the 2011 revaluation review won’t be as severe as expected and the improving economy is driving more money into the county.

Commissioners on Friday will wrap up the retreat by deciding if they’ll ask Diorio to adjust the tax rate – downward, if they did – or keep it at the same rate.

Diorio’s statements affirmed what board Chairman Trevor Fuller said during his State of the County address in late January.

Fuller said then that the county’s “revenue picture” is getting brighter – construction is climbing and people are spending money in the county – and Mecklenburg is expecting a surplus at the end of the fiscal year in June.

Commissioner George Dunlap said he didn’t see anything that would require raising taxes.

Yet some commissioners including Republican Karen Bentley say there ought to be a tax cut.

“If we have excess revenues we should give the taxpayers some of their money back,” Bentley said. “I don’t know if we have the majority to support that. I think the political philosophy of the (board’s) Democrats would drive them to maintain the tax rate at what it is.”

Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour agreed, saying he thought “there’s a strong case that can be made” for lowering the tax rate and “still be able to fund the services that we provide.”

“All it takes is a little bit of will,” he said. “We’ve got the money to fully fund services and still offer a tax cut.”

Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-3, though Democratic commissioner Pat Cotham has said repeatedly that the board needs to take some burden off “people who are still struggling” as the economy improves.

Diorio is changing the budget process from her predecessor, building a budget after she gets the board’s expectations on the tax rate.

Former County Manager Harry Jones let commissioners set priorities, but the board typically didn’t know until May his recommendations on the tax rate.

“We’ll present (Friday) the options to them: keeping the tax rate the same, lowering or increasing it,” she said. “Then I’ll take back what I hear from them and incorporate that into my recommended budget.

“So they won’t be surprised at what I present in May.”

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