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The Mecklenburg County Commission has approved a $2.5 billion bond package for CMS that will go before voters. The board says the money is needed to add classrooms, replace outdated schools, improve learning conditions and keep students safer in violent times.

County approves budget in straw vote, narrowly including $2.5 billion CMS bond

A new high school is under construction in the Palisades area of southwest Charlotte.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
A new high school under construction in the Palisades area of southwest Charlotte.

County commissioners gave their preliminary approval to Mecklenburg’s $2.3 billion budget Thursday morning in a straw vote session. One item that commissioners are split on, however, is Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ request for a $2.5 billion dollar bond package, which won approval in the budget by one vote.

The bond package would be CMS’ biggest ever, funding an estimated 30 projects to renovate, replace or build new schools. But paying back those bonds would require property tax increases in future years — and since the budget already includes a tax hike for most homeowners this year, some commissioners said they shouldn’t pile on.

Commissioner Pat Cotham said affordability is already a problem, and she's worried about what the increase will mean for homeowners and renters.

"We talk about raising taxes, but that also means that is going to raise rents for a lot of people in our county that are already struggling, because we have so many homes that are owned by corporate landlords and they're going to push that on their renters. And I am terrified of that," she said.

Commission member Arthur Griffin moved to trim the bond package to $1 billion. That would have required major cutbacks from CMS.

But county commission chairman George Dunlap says the full bond package is needed to replace aging facilities.

"We have kids in classrooms without windows," he said. "If we really want to help raise the bar, we need to make sure that our kids are in the best learning environment. And that's what this bond request reflects."

In the end, the $2.5 billion bond package won preliminary approval 5-3, with Griffin, Cotham and Vilma Leake voting no. But Thursday’s debate could be a preview of the difficulties CMS will have when it goes to voters in November to win their approval for the bonds in a referendum.

Cotham said she’s worried about what parents angry about redistricting, and fallout from the pandemic, will do at the ballot box.

"There were so many people who were not happy during COVID. I went to the public opinion CMS board meeting. There was so many people upset about the maps and I think they were going to they would take it out on the bonds and vote against it," she said.

County commissioners will take a final vote on the budget June 6.

Tax increase after revaluation

The county's proposed budget will raise taxes on an estimated 91% of residential properties. That's largely due to this year's property revaluation, in which residential property values rose faster than commercial property values.

The county estimates a mid-priced home would see an annual increase of $273 on their next property tax bill. That’s a 17% jump. Future increases would be needed over time as the bond package comes due for repayment.

And because the lowest-priced homes in gentrifying areas generally around uptown saw the steepest increases in value, homeowners in those areas are likely to see the biggest increases. The owner of a home priced in the lowest third would see their property tax bill rise by $312 — a 30% increase.

Here are some highlights from the budget proposal:

  • Total operating fund revenues would be $1.4 billion, an 8% increase. 
  • The budget would fund $4 billion worth of bonds, including $2.5 billion for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools facilities. That’s less than the $3 billion CMS asked for, but would still be a record amount. 
  • Fully funds CMS’s request for an additional $39 million in operating funds next year, to increase salaries for staff. 
  • Increases of $25 million for housing support; $29 million for health care; $40 million for environmental land acquisition; and about $33 million for pay increases for county employees, MEDIC workers and public nurses. 

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Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.