Last year, it took only 20 minutes for Mecklenburg County commissioners to take a straw vote and unanimously approve County Manager Dena Diorio’s first proposed budget.
On Thursday, it took dramatically longer as commissioners bore down into the details of the money the county gives to dozens of community groups.
In the end, the result was the same. The board tentatively – and unanimously – approved Diorio’s nearly $1.6 billion proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and leaves Mecklenburg’s property tax rate unchanged.
Board Chairman Trevor Fuller said after the vote that final approval on Tuesday should be automatic. “There was a lot of good discussion tonight,” he said. “We hashed things out very thoroughly.”
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By the time they finished the 31/2-hour straw vote session, commissioners had added $441,786 to 13 programs. Diorio told commissioners they had a cushion of about $500,000 in sales tax revenues to play around with before they had to think about raising taxes to pay for programs unfunded in her budget.
Yet there was little debate over her recommendation to give CMS nearly $14 million more than it received this year and a one-time appropriation of $4 million from the county’s fund balance for school technology and maintenance. Combined, it was far less than the nearly $40 million in added funding that CMS requested.
The budget also doesn’t include money for a 2-percent pay raise for all CMS employees, despite pleas from teachers and advocates to fund the raises at Wednesday’s public hearing. Diorio has explained that the county isn’t responsible for pay raises for state employees.
At the outset, Fuller took pains to say that the county makes education a priority. He noted that of the $438 million the county is providing to CMS and Central Piedmont Community College, only about $97 million, or 23 percent, was required by state law.
“It’s important for the public to understand that this board values education highly,” Fuller said. “So much so that we provide many millions over what we’re required to do by state statute. … Our allocation will fund some of the growth we’re seeing in the county, but it also keeps us aligned with our overall objectives.”
All told, 52 percent of the budget will go to education and literacy programs, he said.
Thursday’s additions included $20,000 to 100 Black Men of Greater Charlotte and $75,000 for a summer children’s program sponsored by First Baptist Church West. Both allotments were placed in restricted contingency until the organizations provide updated financial audits.
The commissioners also added $63,000 to Care Ring, a group that provides medical care to the uninsured and underinsured. The money will add a second nurse to guide low-income women through their pregnancies and the first two years of their baby’s life.
Fuller called the budget a “responsible” product.
“We were able to keep the county moving forward without raising taxes, and I think we’re in really good shape for the future,” he said. The budget, he said, funds programs that close the gap in health disparities, increases literacy, repairs parks and helps house the homeless.
Diorio said the board’s work Thursday made her budget stronger.
“Some of the groups that weren’t in my recommended budget got money and that puts more resources in the community where they are needed,” she said. “It was a good process.”