County follows city in approving tax increase

Mecklenburg County commissioners voted Tuesday, June 18, in favor of raising taxes in order to fund an increase in need from groups that include Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The vote to increase taxes by 2.35 cents to 81.57 cents went against a proposal from south Charlotte’s Commissioner Bill James that would have avoided a tax increase in exchange for delaying some $12 million in spending and pulling roughly $14 million from the county’s fund balance – which amounts to a government savings account typically used for emergency spending. James, who showed frustration that county staff hadn’t presented commissioners with a tax rate-neutral budget at the budget straw vote earlier this month, said his proposal could have saved funding to programs cherished by Democrats on the board while achieving a neutral tax rate Republicans pined for.

“A majority of Democrats wanted to fund certain programs and the Republicans wanted the tax rate to stay the same,” James, who represents all of south Mecklenburg, said. “Those are conflicting points of view at one level … (so) what in this budget could be pared without impacting the programs that were advocated for (such as) schools, libraries, parks? … I thought that this was the best way to balance the budget that would accomplish the two competing visions.”

But the majority on the commission disagreed, saying now was the time to deal with a “needed” tax increase instead of kicking the can down the road. Along with giving CMS an additional $19 million over last year’s funding, the budget will give Central Piedmont Community College a $3.8 million increase, spend nearly $9 million more on county services like homelessness services and school nurses and $4.8 million to pay for county employee raises and increases in insurance costs.

The commission voted 5-4 in favor of the budget and tax increase. Commissioner George Dunlap, who represents part of east Charlotte and University City, downplayed the tax increase as something that’s not as big a deal as some were making it.

“So that we put things in perspective, what is the (tax increase) debate really about?” Dunlap asked about an increase that will cost most homeowners an additional $40 to $50 a year. “It’s about denying yourself one cup of Starbucks coffee once a month for one year.”

One resident, who spoke about the proposed tax hike at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, said it isn’t something that should be taken lightly.

“A 3 percent tax increase on my property is $43 per year,” the man said. “Where should I cut that out of my budget? Should I cut that out of (my child’s) diapers? How about not feeding him tonight? … Stop spending money like it’s Monopoly money.”

Commissioner Karen Bentley, a Republican from north Mecklenburg, agreed with the man’s statement, saying the county’s tax increase just adds to a burden residents already are seeing from a Charlotte tax increase of 2.5 cents, federal tax increases and general increases in the costs of food and gasoline.

“What I’m asking this board to do, when you vote, is to remember the people … who are living paycheck to paycheck,” Bentley said.

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, of the SouthPark area, said this tax increase is likely just one of a number of increases residents will see over the next few years – except for next year, as commissioners are hesitant to increase taxes in an election year.

“When does it end?” Ridenhour, a Republican, asked. “When are we going to have the moral courage to say we recognize there is a growing need, but government isn’t the final answer to social welfare issues?”

But Commissioner Trevor Fuller, who like Ridenhour took part in his first budget debate this year as a new commissioner, said government can’t just sit idly by on social issues.

“So what’s the answer?” Fuller asked in reference to fighting an increasing poverty rate and need in the area. “Is the answer to starve people? Is the answer to ignore the need? Is the answer not to meet the need?”

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