What’s our power in local government?

As filing for Charlotte City Council and other local elections nears, it’s time to see how much south Charlotte voters turn out to have a say in local politics. Listening to some, any time spent at a polling place south of Myers Park is time wasted.

South Charlotte consistently sends Republicans to Charlotte City Council and the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, only to see those Republicans outvoted time and again by Democrat majorities on both boards.

Ballantyne-area residents have raised concerns about tax increases approved by both governing bodies this month (at 2.5 cents and 2.35 cents) and a $816 million capital investment plan that offers few south Charlotte projects, while concerns still linger over a property tax revaluation many said was unfair to south Mecklenburg – concerns some say are validated by the ongoing revaluation review.

As south Charlotte candidates start announcing their intentions to run for city council Districts 6 and 7, the three open at-large seats and the mayor’s job, south Charlotte’s elected officials are weighing in on what voice their region has and why voters shouldn’t be discouraged despite the recent tax increases.

“If a vote matters only when the voter is on the winning side, then over the course of history millions of votes haven’t mattered,” said Councilman Warren Cooksey, the Ballantyne-area representative and the only one of the area’s four Republicans who may face an election in November. Cooksey hasn’t announced if he will run.

“That said,” Cooksey continued, “the fact of the matter is that just about 25 percent of the registered voters in Charlotte are Republicans and nearly half are Democrats. If one assumes that Democrats can never be persuaded to work with Republicans, then that’s the end of the discussion. Last year’s defeat of the proposed tax increase [which was approved this year at a lower rate] … demonstrates to me that Republicans and Democrats can still work together on important issues from time to time.”

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, the newest of the four south Charlotte leaders, summed it up simply as “Each vote matters. So does staying at home and not voting.”

Ridenhour, who faced his first budget session this year after being elected last November, said he’s aware some have doubts about the power of their vote and worries those doubts stop locals from doing their civic duty.
“There are enough Republicans in Charlotte, and south Charlotte, to win at-large seats, but Republicans buy the hype that we’re outnumbered and can’t win local elections,” Ridenhour said. “We can – we just have to turn out and vote. It is really that simple. If we had one Republican at-large member on the county commission this year, we would not have raised taxes.”

Ridenhour, who represents the SouthPark area, is one of three Republicans on the county commission who pushed to avoid a county tax rate this year in exchange for spending cuts and pulling some money from the county’s fund balance. They were joined by one Democrat.

Commissioner Bill James, who represents Ballantyne and the three southern towns, proposed the idea. The tax increase is just another reason James said it’s time for Ballantyne to pack its bags and leave Charlotte.

“If (voters) want to fix the problems with their representation at the city of Charlotte level, they should come together to form the town of Ballantyne and remove themselves from the high-tax environment they are in,” James said. “I would tell (whoever is elected to city council this November) that, though you are outnumbered, you should use your pulpit as an elected official to help the people of south Charlotte by convincing those in the legislature to allow south Charlotte to withdraw from Charlotte and form a new town. Fair taxation requires fair representation.”

The idea of Ballantyne becoming a town separate from Charlotte has been discussed for a while. Cooksey also has been involved in the discussion, and says the problem remains that not enough work has been done to see what tax rate the new town would need to charge for the more than 100,000 people who live in the Ballantyne area. Cooksey warns the new town would still be subject to Mecklenburg County taxes, which has “almost twice the impact on a taxpayer’s property tax bill,” while James is sure the town’s tax rate would be much lower than what Ballantyne residents currently pay to Charlotte.

“Charlotte just uses south Charlotte as a source of revenue,” James said. “South Charlotte is the ‘tax sugar daddy’ for inner-city Charlotte. That isn’t going to change as long as Charlotte (controlled by Democrats) is deciding how to spend the money.”

The November election will change the face of city council, as the SouthPark-area representative to the council, Andy Dulin, has announced he won’t run. Dulin could not be reached for comment for this story prior to press deadline.

Mayor Anthony Foxx, who will leave for a promotion in Washington, D.C., also won’t run. And with at least two councilmembers rumored to be in the mix for Foxx’s seat – Democrats Patrick Cannon (of south Charlotte) and James Mitchell – at least one of them won’t be returning to council. Cooksey, if he decides to run for re-election, already has one in-party challenger in Jay Privette – who failed in his efforts to unseat Cooksey in the last council election.

Cooksey said, despite much-publicized issues like tax increases – there’s a lot of good a Republican can do on city council even though outmanned.

“I’m always concerned with how residents of south Charlotte are involved in city decisions,” he said. “On several occasions, I have successfully added south Charlotte residents to city advisory panels and stakeholder groups to ensure city policy is made with as broad a perspective as possible.”

Cooksey said, if you’re going to run for his seat, Dulin’s seat, mayor or at-large, go into it with a mindset of working for the city as a whole.

“To the extent I’ve been successful as a council member, it has been by demonstrating that the policies I advocate are good for the city as a whole, not just one part of it,” Cooksey said. “Anyone who seeks to serve in elected office to benefit just one part of the city should instead seek to lead an advocacy group.”

Filing opens July 5, a Friday, at noon at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections, 741 Kenilworth Ave. Filing closes on July 19 at noon. Find more information at the board’s website, www.meckboe.org.
Ridenhour, fresh off a combative budget season, has some advice for whoever does decide to run.

“Know what will differentiate you from your opponents,” he said. “Develop a message that is yours and not just standard campaign talking points. Remember that if you are elected, you will represent all residents, not just members of your party. Have fun! Oh, and invest in a big bottle of Excedrin.”

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