There’s an easy way to solve the DA’s staffing crisis — if the city of Charlotte is willing
This story originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.
Whenever there’s a debate in Charlotte about crime — as is happening now — local politicians inevitably point to the Mecklenburg district attorney’s office not having enough prosecutors.
City leaders then complain (likely correctly) that Raleigh doesn’t adequately fund the DA’s office.
Charlotte politicians say their hands are tied. There is nothing they can do.
But there is something they can do, specifically the Charlotte City Council — if it were willing to spend its own money.
Though the DA’s office is a state responsibility, Mecklenburg County sends the district attorney $3.6 million each year to hire additional prosecutors.
The city of Charlotte’s contribution? Last year it chipped in roughly $313,000.
The county’s money pays for about 21 prosecutors. The city’s money pays for five positions in the DA’s property crime court, as well as one-eighth of the cost of four prosecutors in the drug crime unit.
(The DA’s office said it’s currently staffed with 78 prosecutors — it’s budgeted for 85 — and that national standards say it should have between 110 and 120 prosecutors for a county our size. That means the DA’s office is at about 65% of the prosecutor staffing it should have.)
But there has been zero discussion this year about using city funds to get District Attorney Spencer Merriweather more resources so he can prosecute people faster.
The city, of course, does not want to pick up the tab for something the state should do. That’s understandable.
There's precedent for doing what the state won’t
But Charlotte already pays for things the state should. One example: professional sports.
The state of New York recently agreed to contribute $600 million to help the Buffalo Bills build a new stadium. The state of Tennessee is throwing in $500 million to build a new stadium for the Titans in Nashville.
The state of North Carolina didn’t contribute anything toward the most recent $215 million renovation of the Spectrum Center. It also didn’t contribute anything toward renovations at Bank of America Stadium a decade ago, or to help the city land a Major League Soccer team.
(The state was going to contribute $25 million to bring the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament to Charlotte, but the tournament stayed in Ohio.)
The city didn’t pout and tell the owners of the Hornets and Panthers: “Sorry, the state isn’t contributing anything — that shortfall is on you.”
The city just rolled over and footed the bill.
Helping the DA’s office would be considerably easier, of course. For $2.5 million a year or so, the city could help hire 20 or so prosecutors — getting Merriweather close to that national standard of 110 prosecutors.
This debate goes beyond sports.
There have been recent discussions about the city paying millions for road resurfacing the state usually handles. The city wants to embark on a massive transportation plan, funded largely with local sales taxes and unsure of how much the state would contribute. Mecklenburg County funds supplemental teacher pay.
Where would the money come from?
Republican City Council member Tariq Bokhari has been meeting with GOP legislative leaders about helping Charlotte improve public safety.
He said they are looking at the performance of magistrates who set bond, as well as social programs and staffing at the DA’s office.
If the city strikes out and Raleigh Republicans don’t send more money, the city can always do the job on its own. There are various pots of money the city could reach into.
One is $6.8 million from a special taxing district that goes to Center City Partners, an uptown booster, research and economic development group.
The group’s president, Michael Smith, makes more than $500,000 in total compensation. That’s more than the Charlotte city manager, the CMS superintendent or the Mecklenburg County manager.
Could the city transfer, say, $500,000 from those property taxes uptown owners pay from the organization to hire more prosecutors focused on the center city?
Improving public safety would arguably have a positive impact on the quality of life uptown.
There is another option: Use a small portion of the tourism taxes the city collects each year.
City leaders repeatedly say those dollars are limited to “tourism purposes,” but The Charlotte Ledger wrote about how Asheville has come to an agreement with its hospitality industry to use some of its tourism taxes for greenways and parks, and now possibly affordable housing.
Could Charlotte do the same, to fund a plan to improve public safety in uptown?
In addition to hotel/motel taxes, the city collects nearly $50 million from a 1% tax on prepared food and beverages — a tax mostly paid by Mecklenburg residents.
You could make a case that making uptown safer would help with tourism — as well as making locals want to go there.