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Charlotte Observer: Mecklenburg Commissioners Cool To City, County Merger

A proposal by Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx to study political consolidation of the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County governments appears to have little support among county commissioners. Only one commissioner, George Dunlap, a Democrat, said he would vote yes to a study. Democrat Jennifer Roberts and Chair Harold Cogdell, who is unaffiliated, said they would consider it, but only if the county's municipalities are well-represented in the process. Cogdell said he also would like the study to include nonpartisan elections. Five other commissioners said they were either against the study or undecided. One could not be reached for comment. Foxx, a Democrat, and former Mayor Richard Vinroot, a Republican, have sent a letter to business and political leaders urging them to petition Mecklenburg commissioners to study joining the two governments. The city and county already coordinate a number of services, including police, fire, parks and tax collection. But Foxx has lobbied to take that functional consolidation into full political consolidation. Instead of two elected bodies, there would be one for the city and county. There would be one mayor of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and one manager. "All the mayor is talking about here is forming a commission to study City-County consolidation and, based on those results, determine whether it's a good idea for our region," Foxx's spokesman Al Killeffer said in an email. Killeffer said the Foundation for the Carolinas would bear the cost of the study. The City Council voted 6-5 in December to approve Foxx's request for an independent consolidation study. The county commission also has to approve a study for it to move forward. Foxx began pushing for political consolidation in the summer of 2010, when Mecklenburg County had a budget crisis that resulted in deep cuts to schools, parks and libraries. Cogdell and Roberts said the option for further functional consolidation should be looked at before political consolidation is considered. Commission changing But with four current commissioners - Cogdell, Roberts, and Republicans Neil Cooksey and Jim Pendergraph - not seeking re-election this November and a new board seated during the first week of December, Cogdell said it may make more sense for a new board to set the parameters for studying consolidation. Cogdell said he does not intend to place a resolution on a consolidation study at the upcoming Aug. 14 meeting agenda. Roberts said she disagrees with critics of consolidation who say it would lead to higher taxes in municipalities. "Consolidation does not mean that tax rates would change automatically," she said. Where they stand Three Republican county commissioners - Pendergraph, Karen Bentley and Bill James - are against both voting on a study and political consolidation of city and county government. "It's not in the best interest of people in the unincorporated area and the people in the towns outside of Charlotte. ... I think the townspeople don't think they would have adequate representation to have their opinions and needs heard," Pendergraph said. Bentley said there is enough data about consolidations of government bodies and she does not have faith in study commissions. "I'm certainly not in favor of full political consolidation," Bentley said. "It consolidates power in the center city, and I think it's a significant disadvantage to the suburbs. I think government becomes more extensive and less representative of the broad sections of the community." James, who lives in Matthews, said the six municipalities within Mecklenburg "would become subservient to the consolidated entity, if they existed at all." "For me, studying consolidation is tantamount to raiding the pocketbooks of suburban residents living in the towns or in unincorporated areas," he said. Dunlap supports studying consolidation but opposes a political merger of the city and county. "Politically, my concern is whether or not there would be fair representation" for the municipalities, Dunlap said. Commissioner Dumont Clarke, a Democrat, remained undecided about whether to support both a study and consolidation. Clarke said the most compelling case for consolidation would be to reduce residents' confusion over which government is responsible for which function. But a reason to be against it, Clarke said, is that it would increase the amount of work for part-time elected officials. Commissioner Vilma Leake, a Democrat, said, "Some years ago, there was an attempt to talk about consolidation and people did not support it." Leake also said because she had not heard from Foxx personally, she could not speak further about consolidation. Cooksey, who is in hospice, could not be reached for comment. Several cities and counties nationwide have fully merged city and county governments, including Nashville, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.