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A look at Mecklenburg budget woes

Mecklenburg County commissioners have a chore ahead of them. They must decide how to plug an $81 million shortfall for the fiscal year that starts in July. County Manager Harry Jones gave them his recommendations on how to do that last night. They include cutting CMS by 6 percent, Park and Recreation by 42 percent and the libraries by 44 percent. WFAE's Lisa Miller and Mark Rumsey discuss the budget. Mark: Lisa, what do all those numbers actually mean for residents of Mecklenburg County? LISA: Well, county officials are expecting to lay off about 440 employees. That's on top of hundreds of teachers that will be out of jobs next year. When you think about all the services they deliver that's a sizeable impact. Park and Recreation officials say a 42 percent cut means they'll have to close four recreation centers and significantly reduce maintenance at parks. And, now, library officials say a similar cut would mean closing the library's 16 smaller community branches. MARK: Now in March both of those agencies were asked to prepare for losing up to 50 percent of their county funds. Why did Jones decide not to cut them as much as he indicated he might? Lisa: So under Jones' spending plan both the libraries and the parks department would have a couple million dollars more to work than what that worst case scenario allowed for. Most of that extra money would come from consolidating services with the county like security and facility maintenance. However, Jones said he could've recommended giving the library more of a break if its staff had been more forthcoming with information. "The level of involvement that we've had from the library hasn't been as open and transparent as I would like for it to have been and maybe we could've mitigated some of that reduction," said Jones. He said library officials should've considered combining human resources, information services and technology with the county, but didn't. And Jones said the consolidations they did agree to were handed in at the last minute. But Library Director Charles Brown seemed surprised at Jones comments. Here he is: "I think we've gone to extraordinary length to collect and model detailed information as a tool for understanding the impacts for our funding changes and shared those widely with county commissioners and county staff," said Brown. But I should tell you, Mark, county officials have repeatedly remarked on the difficulty of getting the library board to give them the information they've requested. MARK: Of course, the prospect of libraries closing has been very emotional and controversial in the community. What will happen now? Lisa: Good question. We might learn a little more when the board meets tomorrow. MARK: And County Manager Jones has said it's going to be painful for a long time and he says we need to redefine county government. What does he mean by that? Lisa: Well, for one he recommends putting $14 million into a rainy day fund next year. The budget office calls it a fund balance and we've had a sizeable one for awhile, but the county has dipped into it a lot this year. Jones says it makes sense to cut services in the short-term in favor of what he calls long-term fiscal integrity and stability. The other side to this redefinition is designating a fund to pay the mortgage, so to speak. Right now 21 percent of the county's revenues go to pay off debt. And Jones wants to make sure when the county rebounds it doesn't overextend itself and pay the price, which is what we're doing now. MARK: Could a redefinition of county government include higher taxes? LISA: Jones has adamantly said no to that. In fact, he says commissioners need to avoid the temptation of asking for a sales tax increase because he says it's more important to get spending in order. And commissioners have at least this year pledged not to raise taxes. MARK: Thanks, Lisa. LISA: Thank you.