Inside County Government

Sales tax plan keeps Dena Diorio on edge

Dena Diorio listens as Mecklenburg County commissioners talk with her after she was hired as the new Mecklenburg County manager on Dec. 17, 2013.
Dena Diorio listens as Mecklenburg County commissioners talk with her after she was hired as the new Mecklenburg County manager on Dec. 17, 2013. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

There’s a lot about Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio’s day that relies on routine.

She wakes up at 5 a.m. and gets going with a workout at the gym and a cup of coffee.

Next come the meetings with commissioners, department heads, people in the community and employees; interviews with the media and job candidates; and the occasional speaking engagement, ribbon-cutting or groundbreaking.

She and her husband, Robert, run a small business in Concord, and she also serves on about a dozen boards and committees, ranging from Read Charlotte to the Metropolitan Transit Commission, that vie for her time and attention.

She’s busy. But having just seen commissioners pass her second billion dollar budget since she took over as county manager, it was no surprise that she exuded an air of confidence as she and I sat down recently for an interview.

So I asked: “What keeps you up at night?”

Her answer: Uncertainty.

More to the point, she worries how the county will fare if state lawmakers approve a plan to shift sales tax revenues from where it’s collected in prosperous areas like Mecklenburg and divvy the cash among the state’s counties to benefit poorer areas.

Opponents have said the move would be devastating for Mecklenburg County and Charlotte, a major commercial center and revenues magnet. Diorio feels the same way.

“If that goes through in any form or fashion, that would be a huge game-changer for the county,” she said.

It’s unclear exactly how the change will affect Mecklenburg County, but estimates say the area could lose up to $200 million over four years. Failure to solidify a new budget by June 30 prompted lawmakers to pass an agreement to keep the government funded until Aug. 14. County leaders are waiting until then for news about the sales tax plan, Diorio said.

If the bill passes, “we’ll be talking about either increases in property taxes, which could be really significant, or reduction in services” to offset dwindling revenues, Diorio said. “It would make next year’s budget very, very difficult.”

Eventually, you have to pay the piper. It’s sort of kicking the can down the road, and that’s not good fiscal policy.

Dena Diorio, Mecklenburg County manager

Balancing the needs and wants of county departments when she’s preparing the budget is already tricky, Diorio said.

“We had $80 million worth of requests … and we only had $25 million to spend … you really have to pare it down,” she said. “You have to link it to the organization’s priorities and the board’s priorities.”

Throw in a change into the way the county collects money and it becomes murky on where those priorities will fall. County leaders might turn to the county’s reserves as a stopgap solution, Diorio said.

“Reserves are not ongoing revenue,” she said. “Eventually, you have to pay the piper. It’s sort of kicking the can down the road, and that’s not good fiscal policy. There are no good answers.”

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

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