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Mecklenburg County is planning to borrow billions for bonds. Some worry that's not enough

Pond at Park Road Park, one of dozens of Mecklenburg County facilities that could be up for renovation.
Mecklenburg County
Park and Recreation Department
Pond at Park Road Park, one of dozens of Mecklenburg County facilities that could be up for renovation.

Mecklenburg County is preparing to borrow billions of dollars to build new facilities or renovate existing ones, but some commissioners said at a Tuesday budget workshop that they’re worried the county isn’t spending enough to meet community needs.

Even more than $3 billion dollars in bonds over the next decade won’t pay for many of the facilities that schools, the sheriff’s office, the parks and recreation department and other organizations say they need. And the plan is certain to require a property tax increase, coming the same year as the county's first revaluation since 2019 saw assessed property values jump dramatically.

Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell told County Manager Dena Diorio the bond plan is inadequate to meet Mecklenburg County's needs, especially as the county grows in the future.

"I feel like we're failing as a government, to not provide or invest for the future needs," Rodriguez-McDowell said.

But Diorio said it’s what Mecklenburg can afford.

"We’re never honest about how we can meet the needs of today, because we don’t even project it," said Rodriguez-McDowell.  

"I think what we’re telling you is that we can afford to do this," said Diorio.

"And it won’t meet the need," said Rodriguez-McDowell.

Mecklenburg County officials say the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s request for a $3 billion school bond would impose a hefty tax burden on the very families who stand to benefit the most from new and renovated schools.

The issue is that as much as Mecklenburg County is preparing to borrow, needs outstrip the size of any potential bond package.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials want $3 billion worth of bonds, not the $2.5 billion the county recommends. They'll have to trim projects from their 30-school list of plans to meet the smaller amount.

And the county’s preliminary plan funds $1.5 billion out of $2.6 billion in other requested projects — about half of that borrowed. Some major projects, like a new training facility for the sheriff’s office, were left off the list. Among other big-ticket items, the preliminary plan includes:

  • $486 million for a pair of community resource centers in southwest and east Charlotte. These are facilities that bring together social services, medical services, food, nutrition and health, early childhood education and more.
  • $191 million to modernize the sheriff's jail facilities, and $47 million to relocate the sheriff's headquarters.
  • $107 million for Central Piedmont Community College expansions and renovations.
  • $146 million for library expansions and renovations, including two new libraries.
  • $448 million for park projects.

For schools, the CMS board would decide how the $2.5 billion in bonds is spent. The school system has laid out 30 projects, though it's unlikely $2.5 billion would pay for them all, as the cost is estimated at just under $3 billion.

A government issuing bonds is sort of like using a credit card. The government borrows money by selling bonds to investors, then pays it back with interest using future tax revenue. The county's bond plan will require a tax increase, with the exact amount determined in the next month or so as commissioners set the budget.

But homeowners are likely to see a tax increase under any scenario. With tax increases only to cover the city and county's estimated operating cost, plus a 1-cent increase to cover county bonds, the owner of a home priced at $384,000 (the median in Mecklenburg County) would see their taxes go up $508 annually, a 22% jump, under a hypothetical laid out Tuesday. The county estimates paying off its bond package would require a tax increase of up to 5 cents.

Voters will get the final say on any bond package, as they must approve bonds in a referendum this November.

County budget staff warned at Tuesday’s meeting that Mecklenburg is bumping up against its borrowing limits and could risk its AAA credit rating if it borrows more. If commissioners want other projects funded in addition to those outlined already, they’ll have to take some out, staff said.

County Commission Vice Chair Elaine Powell said she's concerned that a majority of the Park and Recreation projects that were proposed had been left out of the county's preliminary bond plan.

"What happens when Park and Rec submits so many projects and not even half of them are included in the CIP (capital improvement plan)?" she said. "It doesn't feel like anyone's meeting their plan."

Not every commissioner seemed inclined to push for higher spending, however. Pat Cotham asked county staff if they had done an analysis of what the county could afford to build if they chose not to increase taxes at all. Diorio said staff had not, but that they would.

Chairman George Dunlap asked if commissioners would be comfortable simply voting for a massive, immediate tax increase to fund everything they want. He also criticized board members for focusing too much on parks and schools, and not considering the broad range of services the county is responsible for funding, including the sheriff, health services, courts and libraries.

"I would have thought that the only concern of this board would have been schools and parks and rec," he said. "I hope the community is listening, because there are all kinds of needs."

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Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.