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Budget crisis forces city/county consolidation talks

Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte have separate budgets and responsibilities. Now the top elected officials from both say some of their functions need to be consolidated. That has given new legs to an old discussion about merging the city and county altogether. Talk of consolidation has bubbled up periodically and always petered out. But this time may be different, because the county is scrambling to deal with an $81 million budget shortfall and looking with envy at the city's much smaller $9 million gap. If ever there was a time to get serious about merging, Mecklenburg County Commission Chairwoman Jennifer Roberts says it's now. One reason is the "budget crisis," says Roberts. "(We) don't have the ability to move resources, to think bigger and to really use the resources in best way," says Roberts. Roberts appeared Wednesday on WFAE's Charlotte Talks with a panel of city council members and county commissioners. She and Mayor Anthony Foxx recently sent a memo to both groups urging consolidation of some functions such as permitting, HR and emergency response by MEDIC and fire personnel. But Roberts says the conversation should go beyond that to include a complete consolidation of city and county governments. Traditionally smaller towns in Mecklenburg County have resisted that because their property tax rates are generally much lower than Charlotte's. Charlotte City Councilman Warren Cooksey says a consolidated county government would likely result in slightly lower tax rates for Charlotte residents and slightly higher ones for residents of the towns. "There'd be some equaling out," notes Roberts. Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte says he's not opposed to consolidation talks - particularly if it means more efficient government. He's helped businesses merge successfully for years in his business career. "There's no reason it couldn't be done in a public governance structure," says Tarte. "It just wouldn't be an easy thing. And obviously for us in Cornelius, given our financial well-being, we'd be a little more leery of it." Tarte says a major change to tax rates would certainly be a problem for Cornelius residents. But he notes the discussions are still preliminary, and Commissioner Roberts says it would probably be at least five years before any major consolidation could be implemented.