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Community looks for solutions to county budget woes

http://66.225.205.104/JR20100331.mp3

Charlotte-Mecklenburg School officials are bracing for a worst-case scenario that will have them cut as much as $80 million from next year's budget. The school board decided yesterday not to reduce teacher salaries or delay opening two new high schools. But they have yet to decide exactly where the cuts will come. Some 600 teachers could be laid off. But CMS is hardly the only government entity planning for a worst-case scenario. The public library system could see a 50 percent cut in its budget next year. Community outcry has forced county officials to reconsider that figure, though, and CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman says he'll be making a similar pitch. "I'd like to get in line with the libraries right now and work on having a reduction in the reduction for schools," said Gorman to the CMS Board of Education yesterday. Tuesday night Crossroads Charlotte held the first in a series of community conversations about the impending budget cuts. A slam poet named Quentin Talley set the stage for last night's meeting. "With library closings, teachers being laid off and budget cuts, we are definitely at a crossroads," intoned Talley. "So we gonna give you the facts not fears. We gonna tell you the stories of folk who this situation impacts the most. For we all have questions, concerns and ideas." And then came the facts: an hour's worth of slide presentations from the Mecklenburg County Budget Director, the head of public libraries and a top official at Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. They left Pam Johnson a little dazed. "I'm really overwhelmed," said Johnson. "I found the graphs really powerful and really discouraging." Here's what those graphs showed: Mecklenburg County now faces an $85 million shortfall for the coming year. And it's deeply in debt because of the billions spent during the last eight years building new schools to keep up with booming population growth. Now the region's unemployment is near 13 percent and the amount of sales tax the county expects to collect next year is barely half what it was in 2008. Every single department and service in the county is facing a cut. And nonprofits that rely on county funding could get none. And for the 75 or so people gathered to talk about solutions last night, County Budget director Hyong Yi didn't mince words. "We have no good choices," said Yi. "It's either cut services that are near and dear to the fabric of this community or raise taxes, which no one wants to do. You know really, what choices would you make?" There were lots of suggestions. Many people said the libraries and schools should use more volunteers to plug gaps left by budget cuts. "You've got all these wonderful people that are unemployed," says Brenda Campbell. "Go after the unemployed, go after the senior citizens because we can't give you $19 million, but what we can give you is time and experience and a passion for what we do." James Jackson suggested the county look for other revenue sources like toll roads. "I mean, I'm from the Northeast and they do have tolls," said Jackson. "We have three major highways that run through the state of North Carolina where we could get funds that could help our city out, that could help our county out." A few people suggested the county commission reconsider its decision not to raise taxes as a way of dealing with the budget shortfall. All of the group's concerns and ideas were compiled on sticky notes that will eventually be posted on the Crossroads Charlotte website. What happens from there will be up to participants like Pam Johnson who felt overwhelmed, but also, "It gave me more of a handle on what the situation is so now I can go back to my community, my friends, my church and say 'Look at all this opportunity where we need to be and try to pull together something that's gonna make that difference.'" They'll have to work quickly. County officials will start making final budget cuts in the coming weeks.