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Mecklenburg County Commission: Time for Real Change

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Before the 1986 election, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) was five members, all elected at large.  Candidates were sometimes concentrated from affluent areas, and incumbents seeking re-election enjoyed the normal advantages.  Nonetheless, this arrangement did allow voters to participate in selecting the entire Board or, as sometimes was the case, in “throwing the bums out.” 

For example, before the 1966 election, the BOCC was all Democrats, with Sam T. Atkinson, Jr. as chairman.  The 1966 election saw Atkinson re-elected but alongside four Republicans.  Among them were future congressman and governor James G. Martin, a Davidson College chemistry professor, and a future federal judge, Robert D. Potter.  In the following years, majority control of the BOCC regularly swung between the two parties. 

Today the system is rigged and constipated.  With a total of nine members, the BOCC has three at large and six from gerrymandered districts.  There is virtually no competition in the general election in the districts, three safe seats for each party.   

There is competition in the at-large races, but with only three positions at stake instead of five, voters have fewer choices, and each voter has a reduced role in determining majority control.  Since the Commission went to the current 3-6 setup in the 1994 election, the Democrats have held the majority in all but four years, 1994-96 and 2002-04.

It would take an act of the General Assembly to change how Mecklenburg commissioners are elected, an unlikely prospect without a shakeup in Raleigh.  Yet if Mecklenburg voters choose a majority Republican Board this year, that new majority could at least petition the legislature for changes to liven up local elections and make county government more responsive to voters.

What are the chances of GOP victory this fall?  According to former Charlotte City Councilman Don Reid, virtually nil unless Republican candidates for BOCC, at large and district, unite around a short, principled platform.  He’s currently working on one he thinks will do the trick.  Here’s my two cents’ worth on what they should endorse:

1.  Tax Cuts

After years of irresponsible spending, the liberal Democratic majority has finally collided head-on with a sharp drop in revenue due to the recession.  As a result, even they are now promising not to raise property taxes, heretical to their standard orthodoxy.      

Property revaluation is pending and will take effect in 2011.  With revaluation, the county tax rate is bound to change, adding complexity to the election debate.  A “revenue neutral” tax rate has been the buzz word in the past.  But with the combined Charlotte-Mecklenburg long imposing the highest local tax burden per capita among the state’s large municipalities, “revenue neutral” is not enough.

The Republican candidates should promise meaningful cuts in the property tax.  (I advocate at least five percent in each of the next two years.)  Commissioner Bill James has already called for making the 2011 tax rate “revenue negative,” and he’s right on target. 

When the liberal spenders start whining about where such cuts will come from, simply remind them that’s why we have a large professional budget staff, to conform spending to the tax rate set by those elected by the people.  Spending has been a higher priority than taxes for years, and it’s time to reverse the two. 

2.  Stop Business Incentives

Increasingly government at all levels has been allocating tax money directly to favored businesses.  This is a bidding war that nobody can ultimately win and taxpayers will always lose.  It also paves the way to corruption.  Let the “incentives” in Mecklenburg County for businesses be simply low, stable taxes.  If we were known throughout the country for minimum taxes, businesses would be lining up to move here. 

The Republican candidates should pledge to eliminate business incentives.

3.  Repeal Domestic Partner Benefits; End Abortion Funding

The current Democratic majority rammed through so-called domestic partner fringe benefits for homosexual county employees.  This extra cost to taxpayers was sold on the basis that it was necessary to recruit people for county jobs.  In reality it was the Democrats paying off one of their special interest groups and trying to be “more progressive than thou” at the same time.

Mecklenburg also funds elective abortions in the county health care plan.  Taxpayers should never be forced to fund the destruction of innocent human life, whether for public employees or welfare recipients. 

The Republican candidates should promise to promptly repeal these unjust and costly policies.

4.  Continue Immigration Screening

Under the federal 287(g) program, the Mecklenburg County jail has been screening inmates to determine their immigration status.  If they’re illegal, they may end up deported back to their home country.  Despite this program being a model of federal-state cooperation, some Democrats in Washington and elsewhere have been seeking to scale it back.

The Republican candidates should pledge continued support for the 287(g) program.  If it is curtailed by Washington, the Republican candidates should pledge to continue its substance as a local policy to the maximum extent practicable. 

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Tom Ashcraft, a Charlotte native, is  a lawyer and former Reagan-appointed U.S. Attorney .  Write him at TAshcraft@bellsouth.net.

Special to PunditHouse.com. ©2010 Tom Ashcraft. Used by permission.

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