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County Approves Budget, But Bad Feelings Linger Over Emails

Steve Harrison/WFAE
Susan Rodriguez-McDowell said fellow Mecklenburg commissioner Pat Cotham presented a "false narrative" in questioning the county's budget process.

Mecklenburg Commissioners on Tuesday approved their budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which includes a property tax increase.

The owner of a house valued last year at $250,000 - and has risen to $351,000 after this year's property revaluation - will pay $107 more a year in county taxes, or 5% more than last year.

Pat Cotham was the only commissioner to vote against the budget. She said the budget process wasn't transparent, and is upset that board chair George Dunlap presented commissioners with a plan by email two weeks ago that made small changes to the budget.

Dunlap wrote that the plan was what the board had agreed to, and would pass quickly and easily at a budget adjustment meeting.

Cotham said Tuesday that the public should have been able to hear a full discussion about any changes to the budget.

"We usually vote on these one-by-one," Cotham said. "But that didn't happen."

Other commissioners - like Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, who was first elected last year - were upset by Cotham's accusations that the budget talks weren't transparent.

"If you want to make things happen or not happen, the way to get there is by working with others - not torpedoing them," she said during the meeting. "It is painful to be colored in a dishonest light when you have been nothing but honest and forthright and open. When you are working your hardest, and then feel the tire treads of the bus driven by one of your trusted colleagues running over your body, and the bodies of people you care about, to present a false narrative - it really hurts."

At the start of the meeting, Dunlap defended himself - and criticized Cotham and the media for reporting on the issue.

"I spoke with every member of the commission," Dunlap said. "Some were satisfied (with the budget). Some were not."

He said the media has a history of supporting "Pat Cotham and her antics." 

He also said the media perpetuates racism.

"If you are compassionate, you are arrogant," Dunlap said. "If you speak to the issue, you are lashing out." 
The budget includes $21 million in new money to expand to the county's pre-kindergarten program. At last night's meeting, the Foundation for the Carolinas anounced it had raised $6.2 million from private donors to help support the expanded pre-K program.

The county also has money for affordable housing, which is usually a city responsibility. And last week commissioners voted to spend an extra $3 million for the Park and Recreation Department.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.