Mecklenburg County manager proposes no property tax hike

Trevor Fuller Talks About Proposed Budget

Trevor Fuller talks about proposed budget
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Trevor Fuller talks about proposed budget

The county budget that County Manager Dena Diorio recommended Thursday won’t raise property taxes, but also doesn’t fund a 2 percent county raise for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees or a summer literacy initiative championed by Superintendent Ann Clark.

And it proposes giving CMS only $3.2 million for 2,040 new charter school students enrolling in the fall. The district had requested nearly $8 million.

The proposed budget does include $5.8 million for merit increases for the county’s 5,500 employees.

Diorio unveiled her $1.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 during a special meeting with county commissioners. That would be a $41.6 million increase from the current budget.

Last year, commissioners quickly approved her first budget as county manager. But she said Thursday that she expects several items in her second budget to be challenged by commissioners and the public as her recommendations get a public hearing on June 10 and straw vote from the board likely a day later.

Commissioners are set to adopt a final budget June 16.

In an interview, Diorio said she feels the county can hold the property tax rate steady because its fund balance is secure and because improving revenues from property and sales taxes are expected to continue into the new fiscal year.

However, the rate would rise for the 55,000 residents living in the county’s Law Enforcement Service Districts in unincorporated areas. Diorio recommended those residents pay 1.77 cents more per $100 assessed valuation to pay for climbing police protection costs. For a $200,000 home, that would mean a property owner would pay $422.80 a year for that service, up from $387.40.

Revenues are strong, she said, but down from last year – largely because of the state’s tax and tag program and falling federal revenues after the county’s jail saw a significant drop in inmates. The county also got a $69 million hit from refunds for the 2011 revaluation review that is nearing an end. In February, commissioners were told to expect a $30 million to $35 million hit from refunds, but that was before many larger commercial properties had been reviewed.

The financial outlook on revenues could dim if state legislators pass a bill that would take sales tax revenues from more prosperous urban counties and redistribute them to rural counties that are struggling, she said. The county is also concerned about legislation that would prohibit counties from collecting property taxes on buildings under construction until they are complete.

At present, the county taxes those buildings each Jan. 1, finished or not.

“That’s where we get our growth year to year is ongoing construction,” Diorio said. “If we can’t pick that up, it will hurt.”

Education short of CMS request

Combined, Diorio recommended that CMS get $520.7 million from the county. For its operating budget, she proposes the county’s share be nearly $14 million, or 3.5 percent, more than the district got in the current budget – but shy of the $39.9 million in additional money it asked for.

The mark gets closer with a one-time appropriation of $4 million for school technology and maintenance from the county’s fund balance.

The budget also includes more than $3 million to Central Piedmont Community College – about half of that to replace an aging telephone system – and money to other educational or literacy programs.

All told, about $604.5 million is going to education or literacy programs under Diorio’s recommendation. That’s 52 percent of her proposed general fund budget and $29 million more than the current budget.

“We didn’t have as much growth revenue as we did last year, and we had more needs in the county,” Diorio said. “When we looked at what other priorities we had in the county budget, we really were not in a position to fund all of what (CMS) wanted to fund.

“We focused on things that we really considered to be our responsibility – around facilities, sustaining operations, utilities and opening new facilities.”

Diorio and commissioners have said many times that providing pay raises for teachers is the responsibility of the state legislature.

Her budget does provide $5.3 million to raise the starting pay of county-paid CMS teachers by $2,000 a year to $35,000. But it doesn’t provide for pay raises for other county-paid teachers. Historically, the county has matched state pay raises for those teachers. If the state ends up raising teacher pay, she said commissioners will discuss matching them at another time.

The proposed budget doesn’t include about $10 million requested by CMS for 140 teaching assistant positions and restoring driver’s education.

School officials expected both initiatives to be cut from state funding this year. Yet they both appear in a House proposal that has gone to the N.C. Senate.

It also doesn’t include $1.8 million that Clark wanted for literacy support and a summer reading program.

Clark said she was dismayed the budget didn’t include the money. “The initial reaction is of disappointment,” she said, adding she understands that the budget funds other agencies, like the public library, that ultimately support CMS.

“We’re now more anxious than ever to see the Senate budget in June,” Clark said.

Not allocating the full request for charter schools means the district would need to find $4.8 million in its operating budget to turn over to those schools, she said. She said she plans to discuss the budget with Diorio on Friday.

School board member Eric Davis said Thursday’s unveiling highlights “the dysfunctional budget process that we have in our state. It’s difficult for the county to know what to fund when the county doesn’t know what the state is going to fund.”

Commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller said Diorio’s recommendations give the board “a lot to chew on.” He said county managers have typically offered less CMS funding than what school officials requested.

“We’re going to talk about that a lot, I’m sure,” Fuller said. “We’ll have to have a discussion about whether this is the right approach, whether it’s the right amount. My mind’s not made up on that.”

Other funding recommended

The budget includes a recommendation to fund 115 new positions in the Department of Social Services to process food stamp and Medicaid applications and eight senior social workers in an effort to reduce caseloads to the state average. There’s money for 18 positions for the park and recreation department, and 24 positions for building code enforcement to respond to an increasing demand for plan reviews and inspection services.

It would also expand the Child Development-Community Policing Program to all 13 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police districts. Yet because of the reduction in inmate population, she proposed cutting $4.6 million from the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office.

Diorio proposed allocating nearly $1.1 million to the public library for its collection and to launch its digital strategy; $1 million to park and recreation for deferred maintenance and repairs; and $500,000 for the county’s share of Read Charlotte, an ambitious initiative to double the percentage of 3rd graders reading at grade level by 2025.

It recommends a combined $1.6 million in community service grants to preventive health programs such as Care Ring, Teen Health Connection and MedAssist of Mecklenburg.

Diorio proposed more than $1.8 million to groups working to improve high school graduation rates, including more than $1 million to Communities in Schools. Nearly $300,000 was recommended to promote financial self-sufficiency, including $210,000 to train and place unemployed workers.

“This is a responsible budget,” Fuller said. “It a great starting point to have our discussions.”

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061

TAXES: County Manager Dena Diorio’s recommended budget keeps the property tax rate steady. It would be the third straight year that property taxes aren’t raised.

SCHOOLS: The budget would give CMS nearly $14 million more than in the current budget. It also provides a one-time $4 million funding for technology and maintenance.

PARKS: Park and recreation would get 18 new positions and $1 million for deferred maintenance and repairs.

LIBRARY: About $1.1 million is allocated to the public library to increase its electronic collection and launch its digital strategy.

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