Mecklenburg County manager proposes no tax rate hike, increases money for schools and county services

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio on Thursday unveiled a proposed $1.5 billion budget for 2014-15 that would keep the property tax rate stable, while beginning to restore services and jobs cut during years of a soured economy.

Diorio recommended to county commissioners some level of a merit pay raise for county employees but doesn’t want to provide the $19.4 million Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is seeking to give all employees 3 percent raises.

However, her proposal increases funding to CMS by $26.8 million, or 7.4 percent, over what it currently provides the district. That’s everything CMS asked for except the across-the-board raises.

The budget does include money to ensure all county-funded CMS employees – 2,822 out of more than 17,000 – get a 2 percent merit raise.

Diorio said the county has engaged in “healthy dialogue” over the need to keep high-performing teachers.

“I have not heard anyone in this community disagree with the basic premise that teacher salaries in North Carolina are not competitive,” she said.

But she said teacher raises have historically been a state responsibility, although the county adds a supplement to make pay more competitive.

“It’s my belief that we should not go into that business because you’re in it, you’re in it forever,” she said.

The CMS increase is the largest for any agency in Diorio’s budget. It also includes one-time funding of $5 million to CMS for deferred maintenance and technology acquisition.

At a Thursday news conference, Superintendent Heath Morrison thanked Diorio for listening and working with CMS but said 3 percent raises for all staff remains “our highest priority.”

“We will continue to advocate for full funding of the budget,” he said.

Raises ‘tricky’ issue

Board Chairman Trevor Fuller said the teacher-raise issue likely will generate much discussion among commissioners before a budget is adopted June 17. Commissioners will get resident input on the budget at a June 11 public hearing.

“I think Dena did the right thing in leaving that as a policy choice for the board,” Fuller said.

Diorio described the issue as a partnership with the state, but Vice Chairman Dumont Clarke labeled the county “the junior partner” in that deal.

He said the salary issue will be tricky because of uncertainty over how much state lawmakers are going to fund for raises.

“There seems to be two competing proposals,” Clarke said.

Morrison said the uncertainty also complicates life for CMS as it wraps up one school year and prepares for the next. The governor’s budget and the Senate budget both include plans for teacher raises, but with big differences in who gets what. The House budget has yet to be released.

Meanwhile, Morrison said the district is trying to keep teachers from leaving and hire new ones to fill gaps next year.

“We’re trying to recruit teachers without really being able to tell them what their salary will be,” he said.

Diorio said she’s heard considerable concerns from parents about the lack of school nurses. Her budget would provide funding to hire 33 school nurses and three school nurse supervisors, ensuring that each CMS school would have a nurse. School nurses report to the Health Department and aren’t part of the CMS budget.

Funding for Central Piedmont Community College also would increase by $1.4 million, or 4.5 percent. Between CMS, CPCC and additional money to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and literacy programs, Diorio’s budget would provide $571 million to education – 9.6 percent more than the current budget, she said.

The property tax rate would remain at the current level of 81.57 cents per $100 of assessed value. That means the yearly tax bill for the owner of a $200,000 house is $1,631.40.

With $50 million in unexpected revenues, Diorio had the option of cutting the tax rate, but instead decided to bolster services cut during the recession.

“We have so many needs in the community that need addressing,” she said.

‘Mecklenburg is stronger’

The proposed budget is $159 million less than the current budget, due primarily to the dissolving of the county’s MeckLink Behavioral Healthcare and its yearly $200 million in federal Medicaid money.

Diorio said her proposal reflects an improving economy and a “fiscally disciplined” county during the recession.

She told commissioners that growth and prosperity are returning. The county’s tax base, she said, is expanding with new residential subdivisions and the return of construction cranes in uptown Charlotte.

A growth in revenues from sales taxes, she said, shows that Mecklenburg residents are finding jobs, that tourism has returned to the county and that consumer confidence is on the rise.

“Mecklenburg is stronger than before the recession,” said Diorio, Mecklenburg’s former finance director.

Her recommended budget would also:

“I am confident that this one-time appropriation will not threaten the county’s coveted AAA bond rating,” she said. Staff writer Ann Doss Helms contributed.