Diorio: Mecklenburg County finances ‘strong,’ no tax increase expected

For the second straight year, Mecklenburg County is expecting a surplus – projected at $20 million – and County Manager Dena Diorio expects to recommend to county commissioners preserving the current property tax rate.

The county continues to see revenues grow, particularly from sales taxes, assistant County Manager Mark Foster told county commissioners on the first of a two-day retreat to begin setting a new budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Revenues from property taxes are slightly down from last year, partly because of refunds from the ongoing 2011 revaluation review that will be complete this year. Sales tax revenues are up 6 percent, Foster said.

Total revenues exceeded projections by 1 percent, with spending 4 percent below what was budgeted. At this point, the county is expecting a $20 million surplus.

Forecasts for the coming fiscal year continue to be promising, with property tax revenues projected to be 1.5 percent over the current year and sales tax collections 4 percent more than 2015, Finance Director Wanda Reeves told commissioners.

“We’re very strong financially, and at this point in time there’s nothing to indicate that we need to do anything with the property tax rate,” Diorio said.

County commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller said he’d support keeping the same tax rate. Diorio will recommend a budget to commissioners in late May.

That’s a different message than Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee delivered in January as state legislators worked to repeal the Business Privilege License tax that will cost the city $18.1 million in revenues for the coming year. Like the county, Carlee didn’t call for raising property taxes but said the city will have to search for ways to make up for the lost money.

“We’re not impacted like the city was with the loss of the business license tax and having to make up those revenues,” Diorio said. “The county is in an excellent place and has the ability to do some really interesting things.”

On Friday, she and commissioners got some ideas from a procession of department heads.

Lee Keesler, public library CEO, requested $2.4 million that would help expand the library’s digital effort. Keesler said digital downloads have grown 66 percent a year since 2010, as wireless usage grew 37 percent a year during that time.

He said he foresees a time when a virtual library will become the system’s 21st branch. “There is nothing more critical than building out our digital platform,” Keesler said.

The library, he said, hired a digital strategy manager this year and has shifted some collection money toward digital acquisitions, which have doubled the past two years.

The request would go to expand the digital collection, buy more computers for customer use, upgrade the library’s Wi-Fi, redesign the library’s website with better mobile access, and promote an access and awareness campaign.

It would also pay for two digital strategy jobs, Keesler said.

The county is also engaged in an communitywide initiative to end chronic homelessness by December 2016 and veteran homelessness by this December.

Diorio and Fuller have strongly supported both efforts.

Diorio said that the county’s veterans services division was sharply cut during the recession and with a growing veteran population, many of those services need to be restored.

On Friday, commissioners discussed adding Veterans Day as a paid holiday for the county’s 5,200 employees as a way to show support for veterans. Mecklenburg had the fewest paid holidays among 94 North Carolina counties responding to a recent survey.

The extra holiday would cost the county about $100,000. Commissioners Jim Puckett and Vilma Leake said they’d rather see that money go to restoring and expanding veterans services.

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, a former Marine who spent two tours in Iraq, said he wouldn’t oppose the holiday for all county workers but proposed giving the day off just to workers who are veterans.

“The reality is, it will just be a day off for most people,” Ridenhour said. “I don't begrudge anyone for not celebrating the day, but I believe it would be more meaningful to the veterans to just give the day off to veterans.”

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