Politics & Government

County budget includes first tax increase in 5 years. Here's what it would pay for.

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio has proposed the county’s first property tax increase in five years.
Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio has proposed the county’s first property tax increase in five years. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

More money to send 4-year-olds to preschool. More money for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, but not necessarily enough for supplemental pay for teachers. There is also more money for the health department and cybersecurity.

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio on Tuesday unveiled her proposed budget, which includes the first county property tax increase in five years.

Diorio's budget would raise the tax rate by 3/4 of a penny, and would be in addition to a penny tax increase proposed by Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones. If both tax increases are approved, the owner of a Charlotte house with a taxable value of $250,000 would pay about $44 more a year in new city and county taxes. The city hasn't had a tax increase since 2013.

The county's operating budget would increase by $25 million, or 1.5 percent over the previous year.

CMS had requested a 9.3 percent increase, or nearly $40 million, from the county, but Diorio's budget would give public schools an increase of 5.6 percent, or $24.2 million.

Diorio said she fully funded CMS's request for $4.7 million for guidance counselors and social workers. It also fully funds a one-time $4.6 million request to improve school security.

"Obviously some things are positive and some things are disappointing," said CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox. He said CMS could look to shift money internally for higher teacher pay.

"It's a lift," he said. "What we're trying to do is for 10,000 people, and then you add support staff and it's 18,000 people."

After the meeting Diorio was asked about not giving CMS its full request, which is not uncommon during budget negotiations between the county and school system.

"We believe we funded all of the critical items," Diorio said. She applauded teachers for their recent march in Raleigh, where they demanded more pay.

"They did the right thing and marched to Raleigh," she said. "That's where the decision is made."

The proposed budget would also work toward an eventual goal of so-called "universal pre-K," where all 4-year-olds can attend a year of pre-school.

The county spent $6 million toward a pre-K subsidy in last year's budget, and Diorio has proposed another $9 million in the upcoming budget. That would allow another 600 low-income students on a child-care subsidy waiting list to attend pre-K. Those classes will be added to existing child-care centers and preschools — not CMS schools.

Eventually the county hopes to help 80 percent of the county's 12,000 pre-K aged-children attend school in the year before kindergarten. That will be phased in over at least six years.

Diorio said the county believes the pre-K would improve economic mobility, which has been a focus of political and business leaders since Charlotte fared poorly on a 2013 Harvard study of how likely the city's residents are to escape poverty. The county is partnering with Smart Start of Mecklenburg to administer the program.

"There are some in the community who may say, 'Why should my tax dollars go toward early childhood education programs?' I would respond to that by saying that all the taxpayers in Mecklenburg County are already paying the price for children who do not enter kindergarten ready to learn," Diorio said during her presentation to commissioners.

In December, county computers and servers were disabled for several days by a ransomware attack. The budget would spend an additional $5.7 million on cybersecurity, including 11 new positions. The county would also spend $1.7 million on added security for buildings and parks.

The budget also has more money to maintain parks and greenways; higher pay to help fill 100 empty positions in the Sheriff's Office; and nearly $2 million for the tax assessor's office to help with the 2019 property revaluation.

Republican Commissioner Bill James wrote in a Tweet during the presentation that the county should be able to close a $9 million budget gap without raising taxes.

"That should be doable on a budget of $1.7 billion," he wrote.

Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the budget June 4.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs