The county might borrow $300 million to buy land. But that could mean higher taxes.

Drone views of The Cross Charlotte Trail

The Cross Charlotte Trail is meant to run from one end of Charlotte to the other, then connect to points in the county. But there isn’t enough money in the budget to finish it now, City Council heard Monday, January 7, 2018.
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The Cross Charlotte Trail is meant to run from one end of Charlotte to the other, then connect to points in the county. But there isn’t enough money in the budget to finish it now, City Council heard Monday, January 7, 2018.

Mecklenburg County commissioners voted Wednesday to study a new bond that could provide hundreds of millions of dollars to buy land for parks, greenways and schools — but also might necessitate higher taxes to pay for it.

The study won’t obligate the county to anything, and voters would have the final say on a future land bond. If the county decided to move forward, the bond would be on the ballot this fall.

The measure, to study a bond of at least $300 million, was approved 6-2, with commissioners Pat Cotham and Vilma Leake voting no.

County manager Dena Diorio has said adding a land bond could necessitate raising taxes to fund the increased debt or adjusting the capital improvement plan that’s already underway.

Vice chair Elaine Powell, former chair of the county’s park and recreation advisory board, said that Mecklenburg must prioritize acquiring more land for parks, greenways and schools before rapid development gobbles it up. Powell said the county should be more aggressive.

“For 13 weeks since I’ve been sworn in, I’ve been hearing about how much money we don’t have and what we can’t do,” she said. “There is a huge price to pay for inertia. ... The land we’re buying isn’t even close to what we’re going to need for the population that’s coming.”

Mecklenburg has consistently scored low in national rankings that assess residents’ access to park space, and the county fell far short of its previous plans to build 129 miles of greenway by the end of 2018. Less than half of that mileage has been completed. Meanwhile, staffing and funding for the parks has not recovered from deep cuts during the recession, and remains below pre-recession levels.

But taxes could be an especially potent issue this year.

County commissioners are already considering a proposal to put a new quarter-cent sales tax on the ballot in November. If approved by voters, the tax would generate an additional $50 million, $20 million of which would go to the Arts & Science Council and $30 million of which the county commissioners could decide to spend as they want. The ASC has said they’re at a “crisis point” because of falling private donations for the arts, so they want a dedicated, reliable funding stream.

And property owners are waiting to see how the county and local municipalities set their property tax rates, after the first revaluation since 2011 assigned dramatically higher values to many homes. The median increase for residential property values was 43 percent, but homeowners in many fast-growing areas saw their property values double or even triple.

That’s raising concerns about the impact of higher property taxes, especially on longtime residents. Residents won’t know the exact impact on their tax bills until the county and local municipalities get through their budgeting process and set their tax rates in late spring.

County commission chairman George Dunlap said the study by county staff will help clarify how much a bond would cost to issue and what additional debt levels the county can support.

“There is certainly a cost to a $300 million bond. You can’t get it for free,” he said. But, he added: “It’s just a study. It doesn’t cost us anything to do a study.”

Leake said she won’t support anything that would raise taxes.

“I’m not willing to tax my people any more,” she said.

The county is already in the midst of a five-year, $1.6 billion capital improvement plan, with more than half of the projects to be funded by bonds. That includes spending on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Central Piedmont Community College, government facilities, parks, greenways and the library system.

Cotham said that the county already has its capital plan underway, and the previous board told voters they wouldn’t come back and ask for more bonds until 2023. “To come back a few months later and say we’re going to look at another bond? No. I can’t do that,” she said.

Some county commissioners have suggested that focusing on parks might not be a pressing issue for much of the community. Dunlap said at the commission’s meeting last week that a recent ranking of county priorities by people in the community showed minorities care less about increasing parks spending.

“Parks and greenways fell off, except for whites,” Dunlap said. “It was not a top priority for African Americans. It was not a top priority for Hispanics.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Powell pushed back against the idea that parks benefit the wealthy or a particular race more than others. She said parks and recreation centers provide free options for all people.

“I’m not here to advocate for the wealthy population,” she said. “I’m advocating for the least of these.”

Mecklenburg County voters approved $250 million in bond money for parks and greenways in 2008. Almost a decade later, many of the projects have yet to be funded.

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Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.