Mecklenburg commissioners tentatively – and quickly – adopt $1.5 billion budget without changes

After months of preparation, after listening to four hours of public pitches and fielding thousands of emails advocating for a variety of causes, it took Mecklenburg County commissioners about 20 minutes Thursday to tentatively approve a new county budget.

In a unanimous straw vote, the board changed nothing in County Manager Dena Diorio’s proposed $1.5 billion budget for the coming fiscal year.

That means no money for a supplemental pay raise for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees, except at least $7.3 million for a 2 percent raise for county-funded CMS employees.

On Diorio’s advice, commissioners are holding in restricted contingency that money until state lawmakers decide how much of a pay raise they will give to teachers.

The county plans to match whatever raise state-funded teachers get from the legislature, board Chairman Trevor Fuller said.

Thursday’s vote was tantamount to the board adopting on Tuesday a budget that holds property taxes at the current rate and targets half its county money to education. It increases funding to CMS by $26.6 million over the current budget, giving the district all it requested – except for a supplemental 3-percent pay raise for all its employees.

That would have cost $19.4 million, and required commissioners to raise the tax rate by about 1.5 cents or take money away from other sources, said board Vice Chairman Dumont Clarke.

“No one was prepared to increase the property tax rate, or take funding from other sources to the tune of almost $20 million,” Clarke said.

He made the motion to take the preliminary vote on the budget as Diorio presented it.

“I thought our manager put together a really good budget that did a great job of considering the needs of the community in many different areas,” he said. “I thought it was important to support it.”

So did Fuller: “It’s hard for me to find any fault with the budget. I think the manager has really put together a good, very reasonable and very well-considered budget.”

At Wednesday’s public hearing, commissioners heard many teachers and parents urge them to fund the full CMS request. But commissioners and Diorio have argued that teacher pay raises are the state’s responsibility, though the county has supplemented salaries.

With $50 million in unexpected revenues, Diorio had the option to cut the property tax rate. She chose instead to restore or enhance services cut when the economy began to tumble in 2008.

The budget also provides $1.7 million to hire 33 school nurses and three supervisors so that each CMS school will have a full-time school nurse. It provides CMS with $5 million and Central Piedmont Community College with $800,000 in one-time funding to pay for technology and maintenance.

Intending to expand the public library system hours to six days, the budget provides $1.3 million to hire 23 full-time and 17 part-time people to expand the full system to six days and an additional $1 million to buy and replace books. There is also nearly $500,000 to design and implement a digital strategy.

It also gives county employees as much as a 4.5 percent pay raise, and adds sheriff’s deputies and 27 code enforcers. And it allocates nearly $2 million in one-time funding to the county to update computers, and $1 million to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historical Landmarks Commission to beef up its revolving fund.

Thursday’s vote was unanimous, but some commissioners weren’t happy about taking it with little discussion.

Commissioner Pat Cotham tried to start a discussion about teacher pay raises, but offered no proposal for how it could be done.

Yet Cotham voted with the rest to approve the budget.

“I have nothing against the manager’s budget – it’s a good budget – but I just thought the people deserved a discussion,” she said. “I was so disappointed. I was embarrassed.”

Clarke said Cotham had the opportunity to propose a solution to the teacher pay raise issue. “But she just left us sitting there,” he said.

Cotham said she had planned to ask Diorio about the feasibility of holding money in restricted contingency for a one-time bonus to all teachers. “The teacher issue has been such a big discussion in our community and for us not to talk about it was disrespectful,” she said. “Now they are going to feel like they weren’t heard.”

She said she felt her five fellow Democrats on the board – referring to them as “the gang of five” – had already decided to take the vote without much discussion.

“I made my point,” she said. “But it was clear the fix was in.”

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