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Mecklenburg County commissioners hear groups’ pleas for funding

Charlotte Community Health Clinic chairman, Doug Young, along with fellow board members, addressed the county commissioners during the public budget hearing at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. County commissioners listened to Charlotte organizations and public agencies requests for continued funding as a part of the upcoming budget plan.
Charlotte Community Health Clinic chairman, Doug Young, along with fellow board members, addressed the county commissioners during the public budget hearing at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. County commissioners listened to Charlotte organizations and public agencies requests for continued funding as a part of the upcoming budget plan. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County commissioners got another reminder Wednesday of the breadth of groups that county tax money supports as speaker after speaker stood before the board to push for their causes – and have their say on the $1.6 billion budget proposed by County Manager Dena Diorio.

More than 30 people and 15 groups advocated for everything from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the Arts & Science Council to libraries and programs for the homeless, elderly and poor – groups that the county plays a major role in funding.

Each year, the public hearing is a civics lesson in what services the county performs. It is required by the state before the board votes on a budget for the approaching fiscal year, which begins July 1. The board is expected to take a straw vote on the budget Thursday, usually tantamount to approving the final budget at its meeting next Tuesday.

Diorio’s proposed budget freezes county property taxes, but it doesn’t fund a 2 percent pay raise for CMS employees that the district had requested. She explained that the county isn’t responsible for pay raises for state employees.

The proposed budgetincludes no money to hire teacher assistants or to pay for driver’s education, other programs on the school district’s wish list as state funding remains in limbo.

Diorio’s budget gives CMS nearly $14 million more than it got this year – yet far shy of the nearly $40 million the district requested. It includes $3.2 million of the nearly $8 million CMS requested for 2,040 new charter school students enrolling in the fall – meaning the district would have to find $4.8 million in its operating budget to make up the difference.

She also recommended $5.3 million to raise the entry-level pay of county-funded CMS teachers by $2,000 to $35,000, and provides a one-time appropriation of $4 million from the county’s fund balance for school technology and maintenance.

Diorio stressed that 52 percent of the recommended budget goes to education and literacy programs.

That didn’t keep away an army of teachers, parents and advocates Wednesday who tried to persuade commissioners to add money for CMS.

“The budget proposal submitted by the county manager is a slap in the face to over 145,000 children CMS serves,” said Erlene Lyde, a chemistry teacher at West Charlotte High and incoming president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.

She said that of the $14 million increase proposed by Diorio, $8 million would be going to charter schools. “Any objective person can tell how so out of balance and unfair that is.”

Lyde called the exclusion of money for pay raises a “gut punch” to CMS employees who pay taxes in the county. She urged the board to provide supplements to employees who make “below-poverty wages.”

Several teachers and CMS counselors who spoke said they have to work other jobs to help pay bills. Counselor Winifred Muhammad said she doesn’t make any more than she did when she was hired in 2006.

As some of the comments grew contentious, commissioner Jim Puckett stopped the hearing to explain to speakers that making disparaging remarks about government officials was against ground rules. Other commissioners agreed.

Yet Wednesday’s hearing didn’t come close to the rancor over CMS raises at last year’s hearing.

Many of the early speakers came to thank the board for its support, to explain the benefits their groups have brought to the county and urged them to support Diorio’s plan for funding their organizations.

“I am here just to say thank you,” said Jane Cacchione, director of the Ada Jenkins Center in Davidson. The center helps families in crisis connect with services they need.

Eboni Lewis, vice chairman of the Friends of the Library Council, also thanked commissioners for support for the library but added: “If your heart inclines you to give more, by all means do so.”

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