News: Charlotte Exclusives

Priority is Job One

County budget for '06 does not need to raise taxes

Mecklenburg County’s imposing 427-page 2006 proposed budget can be summed up as an exercise in ignoring the obvious. The budget says property taxes must go up $71 million to fund top priorities like schools, but only after millions are spent on what everyone agrees are low priority items.

How else to explain spending $91,500 to produce The Mecklenburgers, the WTVI “info-comedy” show starring long-time Charlotte curmudgeon Bob Raiford? When did TV production become a vital government service?

Want more, try the $3.1 million the county proposes to spend on various grants to community groups which is a decline of exactly 0% from 2005. By the county commission’s own priority rankings, many of these items are far down the wish list, yet they do not face any funding reduction. This simply does not make any sense.

In fact, of the seven priority levels in the proposed budget, a total of $88.5 million will be spent on levels four through seven. It is spending in these low priority areas that drives the property tax hike — indeed, dwarfs it by $17 million.

The entire point of a priority ranking is to provide a guide on how to allocate scarce resources. But if you are going to always find money for low priority items, it is a waste of time. In fact, the resulting process strongly builds in a bias toward ever-higher spending levels as budget choices become unhinged from reality. The result is spending on auto-pilot with tax hikes the first-resort to feed the machine.

Back in reality we find the proposed $18 million operational increase for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is roughly half of the expected $35 million in added revenue the county will receive from economic growth and increased property values. The county is clearly not starved for revenue; top priorities can be funded. But as county manager Harry Jones does a very good job of explaining, much of that revenue must be spent on “no choice” items like Medicaid and debt service. Jones notes that “only $230,682,781 of the $879,724,010 in recommended local funding is completely discretionary funding.”

This makes the choices that are completely discretionary absolutely crucial in keeping Mecklenburg on a sound financial footing. New line-items like $500,000 for improving air quality are a complete waste of money as there is nothing the county can do improve air quality, which is governed by factors like the summer weather and the ever-increasing cleanliness of the nation’s vehicle fleet.

Similarly, $4.1 million in new spending to upgrade county vehicles might be nice, but cannot be a high priority, along with another $451,000 for equipment for WTVI which is on top of the $4.5 million the county spends to run the TV station. Another low priority item, again according the county’s own rankings, so-called “economic development” spending would actually slightly increase in ’06 to $533,000.

As a result of these little upward ratchets, overall county spending would zoom from $773 million in 2005 to $879 million next year, a 12 percent increase. Recall that revenue is increasing at the rate of almost nine percent a year. Are we sure Mecklenburg County cannot live within that growth rate?

Certainly local personal income is not growing that fast, more like half of that rate, yet Mecklenburg’s residents seem to make do just fine. (And better still, it seems, if they work for the county and wind up with some of the proposed $9 million in pay hikes for county workers in 2006.)

This is the hard reality that county officials cannot ignore. They are creating a county government utterly dependent on stripping resources from the private sector at an ever-increasing and unsustainable rate. If that is truly the top priority of a majority of the county commission, we are all in serious trouble.