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Commissioners To CMS: Boost Minimum Wage Or Lose $11 Million

Mecklenburg commissioners want to force CMS to raise the minimum wage for hourly staff.

Mecklenburg County commissioners informally approved a budget Wednesday that holds the property tax rate steady. It gives Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools a $26 million increase, but withholds $11 million of that unless CMS pays hourly employees at least $15 an hour.

Like everything these days, the $1.9 billion county budget that got straw-vote approval is riddled with questions and strains.

There’s no property tax hike, no major cuts and a 3% raise for employees. And after Wednesday’s vote County Manager Dena Diorio said that "we were able to make some really key investments. We increased pre-K by an additional 20 classrooms. We put an additional $3 million in for additional affordable housing subsidy programs."

Commissioners also added some items for coping with the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic: $2 million for workforce development and retraining, and $2 million to look at health disparities, at a time when African American and Latino communities are disproportionately suffering from COVID-19.

Money Could Run Short

With the economy weakened by virus-related shutdowns, a drop in sales tax revenue forced the county to tap at least $35 million from the county’s reserves for the year that ends in June. And the budget that starts in July pulls another $52 million from reserves.

Diorio warned commissioners things could get worse.

"I’m even more concerned because it doesn’t take into account any additional anticipated reductions in sales tax," she said. "This is not a normal year where we generally have, you know, surpluses."

She said the county must eventually find money to cover what’s already in the budget: "Using your reserves to consistently balance your budget is not a good fiscal practice."

An Increase With Strings

The budget includes a $25.6 million increase for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which is slated to get $527 million from the county. The school board had asked commissioners for $538 million, saying most of that would go toward expenses the district can’t control, such as mandatory benefit increases or enrollment growth.

The CMS plan sought almost $3 million to boost minimum hourly wages from $13.22 to $14.11. But commissioners’ Chairman George Dunlap said CMS should make that $15 an hour – and do it without expecting more from the county.

"We have advocated to bring our people up to a $15 an hour wage," Dunlap said. "The city has done the same. The school system has not."

CMS employs about 3,100 people who make less than $15 an hour. Deputy Superintendent Carol Stamper told the school board it would take between $8 million and $11 million to bring them all up to what’s considered by many to be a living wage.

Commissioners voted 8-1 to withhold $11 million until CMS boosts its minimum wage.

Gnashing Of Teeth

Trevor Fuller was among several commissioners who agreed with Dunlap’s plan.

"The school board and CMS organization, they’ve got plenty of smart people over there. They can figure out how to fund their noncertified staff to get them up to $15," Fuller said.

North Carolina school districts don’t have taxing authority, so schools get their money from the state, county and federal governments. Most state and federal dollars are tied to specific purposes, so county money is where CMS gets some flexibility.

But Fuller said he’s tired of CMS looking to county commissioners for more.

"I know we’ll hear the gnashing of teeth and all that, but I’m sure they’ll be able to find a way so that we can fund this for them," Fuller said. "Look, we’re paying for it. And all we’re saying is we want to get what we’re paying for."

CMS board Chair Elyse Dashew declined to do an interview, but sent a text saying, “We’ve reached out to the county asking for clarity on what they are looking for regarding the plan for $15/hour.”

Commissioners will take a formal vote on the budget Tuesday

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.