If there was a word of the night at yesterday’s Mecklenburg County Commissioners meeting, it would have been “teachers.” Not surprising since the board was set to approve its $1.3 billion budget, which includes more money for schools and a referendum for this November that would add money for teacher pay. The meeting turned terse and politically divisive and even had a bit of a budgetary surprise.
When Chairman Trevor Fuller called the meeting to order one thing seemed clear, the commissioners would officially pass County Manager Dena Diorio’s proposed budget in relatively short order. After all, the commissioners had unanimously approved the plan during their recent straw vote.
Then Republican Mathew Ridenhour offered what he called a tweak. It was an amendment to cut the property tax rate by a penny.
“We would still fund everything that is in the county manager’s proposed budget and we would lower taxes by one penny and I think the community would appreciate that,” said Ridenhour.
That would equal an $11.5 million cut to county revenue which would come off the amount set aside to cover the county’s debt. Even with that cut the debt service could be met.
So what would that mean for an average home owning taxpayer?
“For a $200,000 house the reduction by a penny would be $20 a year,” said Diorio.
Fellow Republicans supported the measure saying, “The county was in good economic times, why not give a little back?”
Democrat Pat Cotham joined them in supporting the tax cut
“You could certainly get somebody a bus pass for a week to find a job,” Cotham pointed out.
But the rest of her democratic counterparts said, “no”, calling for tax stability and predictability. And, as in this exchange between Commissioner Vilma Leake and County Manager Diorio, they wondered what it would do to the word of the night “teachers” and school funding.
“It would not decrease it?” asked Leake.
“It would not decrease it,” replied Diorio.
“But it will not increase it?” asked Leake.
“It would not increase it,” said Diorio.
That was too much for Leake.
“If we talk about taking a penny, a penny for my teachers and my educators, I cant do it,” said Leake with a trembling voice.
So Ridenhour proposed a compromise to lower the property tax rate by half a penny and use half of that $11.5 million to provide a one-time bonus to CMS employees. A majority of the council would not agree to that.
Ridenhour then called them out for changing their minds. He cited a newspaper article from February of this year that read, “Commissioner George Dunlap, a Democrat said a tax cut makes sense. How large he said though depends on the cost of services.”
In the end the original budget passed 5 to 4 along party lines with Cotham voting with the Republicans.
But that was just round one.
Round 2 - The referendum
Should voters get a chance to approve a quarter cent increase in the county sales tax?
Here’s how the revenue from that quarter cent would break down:
7.5% to Central Piedmont Community College
7.5% to cultural institutions in the area,
5% to libraries
80% to teacher and other CMS employees
Vice Chair Dumont Clark said that would amount to a 4% raise for all CMS employees.
“Ultimately this is intended to be a statement of strong support. Almost 90% of the proceeds that we anticipate receiving from this would go to support our educational system directly,” said Clarke.
“Intended” is a key word there. By law the allocations from the sales tax can’t be guaranteed to always be spent in the way these commissioners describe in their statement of intent. Commissioner Bill James pushed this point when questioning Mecklenburg County Attorney Marvin Bethune
“The tax could be passed and a future board could say, ‘We’re not going to give that much to schools. We’re going to give to something else or we’re just going to keep it for ourselves,'” said James.
“It is a current statement of intent by the nine members of this board or as many of those who choose to vote in favor of it,” replied Bethune.
James questioned who the real motivating group was behind the tax referendum.
“I honestly don’t believe this is about CMS or CPCC. I think this is about the fact that the ASC has a funding problem.”
Ridenhour, a Republican, also questioned how the referendum was crafted and who was brought in to take part in the process. He was frustrated to learn about it in the newspaper.
In response democrat George Dunlap said maybe it was time for a little political payback.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. So now you know how I felt when you were making decisions without including me,” said Dunlap.
The referendum like the budget passed on a 5 to 4 vote.