News: Charlotte Exclusives

A Radical Proposal

Domestic-partner benefits would set county against itself

Let’s try something radical and take Mecklenburg County’s professed policies and goals at face value. Then let’s try to square that with reality. Just those two steps will show that the effort to extend employee benefits to domestic-partners, same-sex and otherwise, pushed by county commission chairman Parks Helms is out of sync with county policy.

The county often cites its commitment to operate in a business-like fashion, even going so far as to have an official “strategic business plan.” Back in January 2004 Mecklenburg County reformed its budgeting model to reflect what was supposed to be the no-nonsense, business-like preferences of the commissioners. County staff would then use “this new way of thinking and decision-making” to generate a county budget and in implementing policy. So far, so good.

County Manager Harry Jones then morphed this plan into the “Managing for Results philosophy” or vice versa, it is hard to tell when you keep falling asleep reading this stuff. Anyway, the important point is that this dense bureaucrat-ese is supposed to commit the county to, among other things, “a transformation of Mecklenburg County’s human capital management, building from the ground up a more strategic approach to providing human resource services, including moving to a market-based compensation system.”

OK, then. Jones’ official agenda for 2005 commits the county to a compensation system more in tune with prevailing market conditions. Employee benefits, obviously, are a big part of the county’s compensation system. And just as obviously Helms’ proposal to expand county benefits to include the domestic-partners of employees would be a significant change to the benefit structure, roping in an entirely new class of benefit recipients.

So the pertinent question suggested by the county’s own standards is clear: Do local market conditions indicate that such an expansion in benefits is needed? Is the county somehow missing out on hiring good employees with its current benefit structure? The available evidence says no.

The city of Charlotte just went through this process last year and found no compelling market pressure to expand the city’s employee benefits to cover domestic-partners. City manager Pam Syfert, not exactly a shrinking violet when it comes to changing city policy, found no reason for such a change. Unless we make the bizarre assumption that the county somehow faces a different labor market than the city does, we must conclude that there exists no market-driven reason to expand benefits.

Yet despite what the city determined last year, county staff is now at work, presumably under the direction of Chairman Helms, trying to determine just how much an expansion in benefits eligibility would cost the county. This alone reveals that all the literature turned by county manager Jones and his prolific staff to be little more than propaganda. The strategic business handbook can be tossed aside at anytime, it would seem. Indeed, the county operates on sound business principles like drunk fishing buddies haul in a prize catch: Accidentally and incidentally to the main purpose at hand.

Helms proposal reminds us that the county’s main focus is politics, and evidently in Helms’ case, a particular strain of interest-group politics that depends on grievance and divisiveness for its relevancy. Moreover, with the county facing critical issues like a public debt burden creeping towards $250 million a year, chronic overcrowding in public schools, and a barely functional criminal court system, there is precious little time to devote to a wholly unnecessary political battle.

Were Chairman Helms serious about helping Mecklenburg to address its truly relevant issues he would end his pursuit of domestic-partner benefits and apologize for ever bringing it up in the first place. Otherwise, be on the look-out for the new motto on the county seal: Politics today, politics tomorrow, politics forever.