Mecklenburg County’s proposed budget for the upcoming year wouldn’t raise property taxes, and county manager Dena Diorio has recommended that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ entire capital plan – nearly $1 billion – go before voters in a November referendum.
If approved by voters, the $937 million bond package would build 10 schools, as well as replace old schools and build additions to crowded campuses. Seven of the oldest schools in the county would be rebuilt: West Charlotte High School, Briarwood Elementary,, Bruns Academy, Collinswood Language Academy, Lansdowne Elementary, Montclaire Elementary and Shamrock Gardens Elementary.
Diorio recommended Mecklenburg commissioners put the entire bond proposal on the ballot.
“We were elated, really, to hear the announcement about the full cost of the bond,” said CMS board chair Mary McCray.
However, Diorio didn’t fully back CMS’ request for an additional $27 million for its operating budget, a 6.5 percent increase. She recommended commissioners give the school district $15.3 million in new funding, a 3.7 percent increase over what the county allocated to schools last year.
CMS Superintendent Ann Clark, who watched Diorio’s budget presentation Tuesday morning, said she “needs more detail” about the funding proposal to make a comment.
“Until I can see specifics, I can’t say anything,” she said. “Then our team will reconvene.”
Clark has said most of the increase was needed for rising costs, staff raises and growing enrollment.
The only new initiative, she said, was $4.5 million to hire more support staff: 42 more counselors, 12 social workers and six psychologists. She has also said she expects the 2017-18 budget to cover about $6.4 million in costs to prepare for 2018 changes in student assignment, such as buying technology and equipment and preparing teachers to staff new magnet programs.
But it’s hardly a shock for the county manager to recommend less than CMS asked for; it happens nearly every year. Last year CMS asked for a $23 million increase and got the $11.3 million the county manager recommended.
That year, CMS also asked for an $805 million bond referendum and commissioners said no.
The last CMS bond referendum was in 2013, for only $290 million. Voters approved it.
Republican Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said he expects his colleagues to debate whether the entire CMS bond package should be advanced. He said it was “a bit outrageous” to expand the bond package from $800 million worth of projects in December to the $937 million request today.
“There were other projects that were ranked higher, but they were skipped over,” he said. “Folks are always saying, don’t play politics with children, and that was a purely political maneuver.”
Ridenhour said he liked the overall budget, especially an emphasis on early childhood education. Diorio proposed $6 million to expand an existing child-care subsidy for low-income working families.
Over the last year, there has been a construction boom throughout Mecklenburg, which has generated new revenue for both the city of Charlotte and the county. Since Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones has also proposed keeping the city tax rate the same, homeowners wouldn’t see an increase in their tax bills this year if both proposed rates hold.
To keep up with the county’s explosive growth – an estimated 50 people relocate to Mecklenburg every day – the county’s capital budget also has other big-ticket items.
The Park and Recreation capital budget through 2023 is $277 million, which includes two new indoor regional recreation centers – one for east Charlotte and another to serve the north Mecklenburg towns.
A large part of the parks capital plan is nearly $119 million in upfront money for a new professional soccer stadium in Elizabeth, which would be built on the site of Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center.
The proposed capital budget includes $71.25 million for the stadium next year, and then another $47.5 million for fiscal year 2020. After that, the county would begin collecting lease payments of $4.26 million a year from the potential soccer team, whose prospective ownership group is led by Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports. Charlotte hasn’t been awarded an expansion team yet.
Commissioners approved the stadium plan in a 5-3 vote. Democrat Pat Cotham joined Republicans Matthew Rindenhour and Jim Puckett in voting no, and Republican Bill James – who didn’t vote – also opposed the plan.
The capital park budget also includes $16 million to rebuild the Discovery Place Nature Museum in Freedom Park, which was once the Charlotte Nature Museum. The total cost of the project is $32 million. Diorio said the museum is in “dire need of updating.”
The county’s operating budget for park and recreation includes a nearly $3 million increase, which would fund 11 new full-time positions and 16 part-time jobs.
Other parts of the capital plan:
▪ $65 million to rebuild the Main Library on North Tryon Street. The operating budget calls for $1 million in recurring funds to buy new books and other collection materials for the library system.
▪ $171 million to build six new Community Resource Centers, which are designed to give residents better access to health care and human services. The first CRC is under construction at the Valerie C. Woodard Center on Freedom Drive. It will open next year.
▪ $33 million to renovate two county-operated jails.
▪ $151 million for construction of a new Learning Resource Center for Central Piedmont Community College’s central campus, as well as the building of a 68,000-square-foot classroom building.
Under the proposal, county employees would be eligible for a new paid parental leave program. If approved by commissioners, the county would pay for six weeks of time off for the birth, adoption or placement of a child, as defined by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts in January asked that the city also provide paid time off for its employees. But city manager Jones said it was too complicated to include in this year’s budget, though he said the city is still working on the idea.
The county will hold a public hearing on the budget at 6 p.m. June 5 in the meeting chamber of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.