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Giddily Doling out Taxpayers’ Dough

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The wheels have come off the bus. Those who did not see last Tuesday’s Mecklenburg County Commission budget straw vote may be led to believe that the board methodically and pragmatically went through the budget line by line, ensuring that taxpayer dollars were well-spent. If so, they would be misled.

Let me be clear: Tuesday night’s budget straw vote was nothing short of the willy-nilly doling out of tax dollars to pet projects. It was inexcusable. At every opportunity, the board voted to increase county spending. All processes for receiving county funding were ignored.

Your organization did not have an audit completed by a CPA? Approved! Your organization’s application was incomplete? Approved!

Around 8:15 p.m. we took a break, and during this break a representative of a local health clinic approached a commissioner and requested $50,000 in county funds. Now, this organization already receives $200,000 of county funding, did not request additional funding from county staff, and did not even email the board in the preceding weeks requesting additional tax dollars. No, they simply approached a commissioner during the break and asked if they could get an additional $50,000. Just like that, in the span of less than five minutes, the board increased their funding by 25 percent. No application, email, or justification necessary.

I do not blame the clinic. They saw what many of us saw: a commission handing out taxpayer dollars with little debate or regard, and they wanted a piece of the action.

Early on it became clear that we would not be able to fund these requests without increasing the tax rate over the manager’s proposed 2.5 cent increase. What was the solution? Increase our projected sales tax revenue by a half percent, or $650,000. We then spent $484,500 of that “found money.”

We also voted to increase funding to the manager’s office in the amount of $82,000 so the manager could hire an additional assistant for board support. We already have one assistant who does a phenomenal job, and for years the board has gotten along just fine with one assistant. Yet now this board decides it needs an additional assistant at the cost of $82,000? We could have hired a PoliSci major out of UNCC for $35,000 plus benefits, and placed him or her in the organizational chart below our current assistant. This would have given our assistant a direct report; would have given a recent graduate excellent pay, benefits, and experience; and would have saved taxpayers about $30,000 over the current proposal. But this motion was toward the end of the night, and I suppose there was no sense in trying to achieve any fiscal responsibility at that point.

One of the last motions made was to provide $1,200 in taxpayer funding for a luncheon for a citizens’ advisory board. I cautioned the board that if we approve the motion this year, for this advisory board, then we can surely expect the other 40 advisory boards to make the same request next year (and the years following), at a cost of $49,200 per year. This motion was not approved, but was instead added to the “consent agenda” for the June 18 meeting. This means it is expected to pass with a simple formality vote.

I cannot adequately describe the euphoric spending “high” that many commissioners seemed to be on. There was zero fiscal sanity. There was no process.

My problem with Tuesday night’s straw vote is not with the tax increase, although I certainly am against one. This is not a Republican/Democrat or Conservative/Liberal issue. It is a matter of fiscal responsibility. Where was the program that we said “no” to? Where was the organization for which we declined funding? There was none. Not one.

Some commissioners cited a growing need for public services as necessitating the tax hike. The demand for public services is growing, and will continue to grow at an alarming clip during the next few years. If last Tuesday was any indication, then the taxpayers of Mecklenburg County can expect continued tax increases in the coming years. We had the opportunity to provide a little relief, if even for one year – a year in which Charlotte is raising its taxes, storm water fees are increasing, and the cost of basics such as milk are rising.

But the commission could provide no such relief. It lacked the will.

Matthew Ridenhour, a Republican, represents District 5 on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.

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