Politics & Government

Mecklenburg residents call for more county money for schools, parks and services

Residents wait to speak up about the county budget at a meeting of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners on Monday at the Government Center.
Residents wait to speak up about the county budget at a meeting of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners on Monday at the Government Center. cmetzler@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg residents urged county commissioners to spend more money on parks, education and public services in a public hearing on the county budget Monday.

The county commissioners held the meeting to hear public commentary on the county manager’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

More than 50 people spoke at the special meeting, with the majority of speakers requesting additional funding for schools.

Kevin Strawn, a math teacher at East Mecklenburg High School, asked for support of the school bonds currently outlined in the county budget that would pay for school construction projects.

He also acknowledged that it is primarily the state’s responsibility to support schools, but said every county in North Carolina provides some supplement for teachers.

“The recession is over – it’s time to compensate your employees appropriately,” he said.

He said multiple counties provide supplements that exceed what Mecklenburg provides to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Last week, county manager Dena Diorio recommended that CMS’ full capital plan for the upcoming fiscal year be voted upon in a November referendum.

The bond package is close to $1 billion. It would allow for the construction of 10 new schools as well as replacements and additions for older ones.

Diorio did not fulfill the full CMS budget request of an additional $27 billion for the upcoming year in her plan, which would have been a 6.5 percent increase from last year’s CMS budget allocation. She instead recommended $15.3 billion, a 3.7 percent increase.

Tom Bowers, spokesperson for the League of Women Voters, called for the county’s full support of the proposed CMS expenditure.

“The budget proposal for early childhood education for all 4 and 5 year olds is a welcome start, and we urge your approval,” he said.

He said a caring community funds the commitment to early childhood education.

“Physical and social needs must be met before a teacher can teach and a child can learn.”

Arthur Griffin, former chairperson of the school board, spoke in support of CMS’ request for the full bond package as well.

“I look at this recommendation by the county manager not as an expense, but simply as an investment,” he said.

He said the county schools need to be equipped to provide adequate technological support for students.

“Students need a space that’s conducive to learning in the 21st century,” he said.

Rob Harrington, vice chairperson of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Board of Trustees, called for more sustainable funding of books and materials.

He emphasized support of technology infrastructure and the need for a new library in the county.

Speakers called for additional or renewed funding of programs such as early childhood literacy, support for the homeless, domestic violence shelter funding, veterans services and a Women’s Equality Day event.

Andrew Oliver, executive director of Pat’s Place, spoke to request additional county funding for the child advocacy center. He said while usage of the center has increased, the funding provided by the county has remained level.

“This local government funding and partnership with community services makes all the difference for our organization,” he said.

Many individuals urged further support for parks and recreation.

Rick Winiker, Park and Recreation commissioner for the central district, advocated for additional support of the Mecklenburg County greenway system.

“Park and Rec – you couldn’t get a better bang for your buck in respect to what Park and Rec does,” he said.

Winiker called for the commissioners to renew their annual provision of $7-8 million for the Greenway Master Plan.

The president of Greenways for Mecklenburg, Ed Barnhart, said greenways are a top requested park service.

“It is our goal that we have a total of 150 miles of greenway completed by 2030,” he said.

The Park and Recreation capital budget through 2023 is set at $277 million, which would allow for the creation of two new indoor regional recreation centers. One is to be located in east Charlotte and another in north Mecklenburg.

Nearly $119 million of the proposed parks capital plan is to be allotted upfront to the construction of a new professional soccer stadium in Elizabeth, built on the site of Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center.

Commissioners approved the plan for the new stadium in a 5-3 vote in January.

The county commissioners will meet to review the county manager’s recommended budget on Thursday at 3 p.m. in room 267 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described how the money from a bond referendum would be used. The money would build 10 schools, as well as replace old schools and build additions to crowded campuses.

Caroline Metzler: 704-231-5316, @crmetzler