Mecklenburg County manager recommends CMS get half the increase school board requested

County Manager Dena Diorio (Bottom left) presents her budget recommendations to Mecklenburg County commissioners Thursday.
County Manager Dena Diorio (Bottom left) presents her budget recommendations to Mecklenburg County commissioners Thursday.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are likely to get a much smaller annual increase from the county for their operating budget than requested.

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio’s $1.6 billion proposed budget, unveiled at the commissioners meeting Thursday, recommends an $11.3 million increase to CMS’ operating budget for the coming year. That’s about half of what the school board had requested. The recommendation, a 2.8 percent increase, is in line with the county’s 2.8 percent operating budget increase this coming year, Diorio said.

Diorio’s proposed budget keeps the county’s property tax rate the same.

CMS receives about one-third of its operating budget from Mecklenburg County each year. The school board requested a $23 million increase from the county for the coming school year, a 5.6 percent increase from the current budget. That would have brought CMS funding from the county to $425 million.

The school board and the county commissioners have been at odds over the proposal, which some county commissioners criticized Tuesday as being too high. CMS Superintendent Ann Clark has said the increase is needed to cover the school system’s rising costs.

Thursday, some county commissioners said CMS will have to shift its resources internally. The proposed county budget transfers about $14 million from some programs (parks overtime, for example) to fund new programs (an increase in compensation for District Attorney personnel).

“I would just suggest for those who are going to cry foul that we have within our budget redirected $14 million to cover the new proposals we have,” said commissioner Jim Puckett, a Republican. “I would suggest CMS start to work with redirection in theirs. We’ve already done our work to fill the gap. ... Fair is fair.”

Commissioners Vice Chair Dumont Clarke, a Democrat, warned that CMS might have to cut positions if it doesn’t get its full county funding request.

“I think if you translate to English, that means start laying off some employees or cutting programs,” said Clarke. He said two-thirds of CMS’ budget goes to compensation, and that much of the increase Mecklenburg provides will go to fund charter schools. “The CMS board, if we adopt this budget, is going to have to really start working hard very quickly on whatever you want to call it: Repurposing, redirecting, eliminating, trimming, adjusting.”

Elyse Dashew, vice chair of the CMS board, said she’s happy the county budget plan also includes money for deferred maintenance at schools, but worried about how CMS will handle a shortfall in its operating budget request.

“I totally understand that their revenue growth is not keeping up with the basic needs of our community,” Dashew said. But CMS officials say they need the full increase of $23 million to keep up with rising costs, employee raises, enrollment growth – including money passed to charter schools – and a busing expansion the board has already approved.

“We don’t have a lot of fat to cut,” Dashew said.

County commissioners will hold a public hearing June 2 on the budget, and plan to vote on the plan June 21. The governor and General Assembly, which provide the majority of funding for CMS through the state budget, also haven’t settled their budget and haven’t given a final figure for how large teacher pay increases will be.

Vilma Leake, a Democrat, wanted to refute the idea that she had been angry at CMS at the county meeting earlier this week, when she criticized CMS for closing schools in 2010 and not building a new West Charlotte High School.

“I’m not mad at anybody,” Leake said Thursday. “People perceive you raise your voice, you have to be upset, but that’s not it. … I didn’t draw a gun on anybody.”

Preparing for revaluation

The county plans to start preparing for the 2019 property tax revaluation next year, hoping to avoid the problems and disputes over property values that dogged 2011’s revaluation for years.

The budget includes the first year of $150 million to be spent on deferred maintenance items at public facilities over the next five years, fixing buildings, greenways and other county facilities. The majority of that, $18 million a year, would go to CMS for maintaining school facilities.

“We’re at a pivotal point. We have the choice of paying less now, or paying more later,” said Diorio.

Staff writer Ann Doss Helms contributed.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo