Politics & Government

Mecklenburg commissioners approve full CMS bond request. Will voters agree?

The Mecklenburg County commissioners discuss a budget plan on Tuesday at the Government Center.
The Mecklenburg County commissioners discuss a budget plan on Tuesday at the Government Center. cmetzler@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County commissioners voted Tuesday to place a nearly $1 billion bond package for schools on the November ballot.

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, Briarwood Elementary, Bruns Academy, Collinswood Language Academy, Lansdowne Elementary, Montclaire Elementary and Shamrock Gardens Elementary.

The last CMS bond referendum was in 2013, for only $290 million. Voters approved it.

County manager Dena Diorio’s budget does not include an increase to the property tax rate. The city of Charlotte’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year also does not have a property tax increase.

Commissioner Trevor Fuller said Tuesday that the county’s $1.6 billion budget plan was an example of conservative fiscal management.

“What we will put before the people in November is the opportunity to confirm that decision, particularly with respect to the school bonds,” he said.

Commissioners have delayed a vote on the most controversial part of the budget – spending nearly $120 million in upfront money on a new soccer stadium to replace Memorial Stadium in Elizabeth.

The soccer financing plan calls for the county to spend $71.25 million for the stadium next year, and then another $43.5 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 decided earlier this month to delay that vote until August. They want the city of Charlotte to also spend $43.5 million toward the $175 million stadium – something City Council has so far refused to do.

If the city doesn’t act, the county might back out of the partnership.

Some commissioners proposed Tuesday that the soccer money be allocated toward unfunded park projects or school needs.

Commissioner at-large Pat Cotham said Tuesday that she and three other commissioners want to use the money for park projects instead of the stadium.

“I thought that our getting involved in soccer was a mistake, and we need to focus on our core responsibilities … Park and Recreation, CMS, Central Piedmont, things like that,” she said.

She said the 2008 bonds for greenways that voters approved have been put to the side, and that the commissioners owe it to the voters to fund them.

The 2008 bond referendum allocated $250 million to buy land for parks and greenways, as well as to expand existing ones.

But Commissioner George Dunlap was in support of allocating the money to the soccer stadium and said Tuesday that the issue is not about soccer.

“What no one has said tonight: that by renovating, rebuilding Memorial Stadium, it spurs economic development,” he said.

He said that, contrary to popular belief, not everyone in Charlotte wants greenways.

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 the upfront money for the professional soccer stadium.

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.

While Diorio backed the full CMS bond request, she declined to recommend the school system’s entire operating budget increase.

CMS asked for an additional $27 million for its operating budget, a 6.5 percent increase. Diorio 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.

Editor’s note: An earlier version incorrectly attributed the following quote to Commissioner Jim Puckett: “What we will put before the people in November is the opportunity to confirm that decision, particularly with respect to the school bonds.” Commissioner Trevor Fuller made the comment.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

Caroline Metzler: 704-358-5433, @crmetzler