Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Age of Budget 'Scenarios'

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman got sneers and some derision last year when he rolled out, for the first time, different scenarios for the school budget. Anticipating state and local cuts of up to $70 million last year, he developed a list of potential cuts that would kick in based on how much money the schools eventually got from its different funding sources. The worst-case scenario, a $70 million cut, didn't materialize because of federal stimulus money. But the process did give the community a sense of what would have to go, and an opportunity to weigh in on what residents valued keeping.

CMS took the same approach this year, with a worst-case scenario of close to $80 million cut, and up to 1,000 employees laid off including nearly 600 teachers.

Now, the Public Library is taking the same tack. Today, Charles Brown, Director of Charlotte Mecklenburg Libraries presented three budget scenarios to the Board of Trustees. The scenarios outlined three different ways the Library could deal with a possible $17 million budget reduction from Mecklenburg County. The Library receives approximately 93% of its sustainable funding from the County.

Scenario One allows for most libraries to remain open, but most locations would only be open one to three days per week and for limited hours, with some locations closed. This scenario leaves just 27 percent of the Library’s workforce intact (based on 614 positions in July 2008) and is not recommended because many citizens would not be able to use the library during the extremely limited hours, and because the employee to customer ratio at larger locations would be insufficient to ensure a safe environment for either employees or the public.

Scenario Two would close as many as 16 of the current 24 libraries based on both subjective and objective criteria, similar to what had been used in the scenario presented in March that recommended the closing of 12 branches. The criteria would include cost, usage, proximity and size in addition to community need. This scenario would result in large unserved areas and would leave a slightly larger percentage of the workforce intact, approximately 35 percent.

Scenario Three would involve keeping all of the regional libraries open, including ImaginOn and Main Library, but would close the community locations. This scenario also allows 35 percent of staff to remain and would provide minimal coverage for the largest segment of the community. Brown said keeping the regionals open allows the library system to offer full service (including more computers, books, meeting rooms and copiers), and to be able to accommodate more parking. In addition, this option provides a stronger starting place from which to rebuild the system should the economy recover. Brown also indicated that a reverse scenario was considered that closed the regional libraries and kept the community libraries open, but the “cons” around this model included fewer book and computer resources available to a potentially larger number of users as well as issues of more limited physical space and parking availability. Library officials will discuss the issues further at a meeting in May.

Officials said that no matter which scenario is selected, library customers will be negatively impacted because all of the scenarios include severe cuts to staff, library locations, service and materials. Information sessions to facilitate a dialogue between the community and Library staff will take place from Mid-April to May 4. Information shared at these sessions will help inform any future scenarios and will help the community to understand the library’s decision-making process. To view the presentation, click here.The Board of Trustees will vote on the Library’s final operating budget in June, following Mecklenburg County’s adoption of the FY11 budget.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Education $$ not helping CMS budget

Education dollars are flowing into North Carolina, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, but they're not making the local schools' budget picture look brighter. Last week, CMS learned it was a finalist for the Broad urban education prize. It will get $250,000 as a finalist. But if it wins - the announcement will be made this summer - it will get $1 million. But all that money goes to scholarship so it won't help operating costs, which may take up to a $80 million cut in state and local funds because of poor revenues due to the recession.

This week, both Gov. Bev Perdue and U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) announced that North Carolina will receive more than $91 million from the federal stimulus to turn around poorly performing schools. Hagan serves on the Senate committee with jurisdiction over education.

Perdue said the money will toward the state's goal of “preparing every student, no matter where he or she lives, to graduate from high school ready for a career, college or technical training demands that we turn around our low-performing schools.”

Noted Hagan: “Schools in North Carolina will receive stimulus funding to implement innovative models to better serve our students. This funding will help North Carolina students compete in the 21st-century economy and become career and college ready.”

But according to Hagan, qualifying school districts must be among the “persistently lowest achieving,” as determined by the state of North Carolina. School districts that have failed to meet yearly progress for two years can also apply, but will only receive funds once all of the persistently lowest achieving school districts have received funds. CMS as a whole doesn't fit those categories though it has schools that do.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Expert: Build roads where people are

Just a week or so ago, Observer reporter Mark Johnson and News & Observer reporter Bruce Siceloff wrote a long piece about the inequities in road funding for Charlotte and other N.C. cities. They reiterated what most elected officials in Charlotte know - that the city's transportation needs are disproportionately underfunded by the N.C. Department of Transportation. Mecklenburg County ranked 89th out of 100 N.C. counties in the number of state dollars for road construction and maintenance on a per-person basis.

Today, a N.C. Justice Center expert added his voice to a push to address such inequities in testimony before the N.C. legislature's Joint Transportation Committee. According to a news release from the Justice Center, Dr. Stephen Jackson said changing the funding priorities is essential to dealing with the state's road needs effectively, especially easing traffic congestion.

We can build infrastructure that meets the challenge of the future, said Jackson of the N.C. Justice Center's Budget & Tax Center. But to do so requires bold steps to empower local governments and forward-thinking initiatives to send transportation funds where most people live. "Building better roads and road networks in our urban areas is necessary, but can't solve the problem alone," said Jackson. "To combat sprawl, we also must build better public transportation, encourage more compact growth, and change our funding priorities."

One prime example of why changing those funding priorities is necessary: urban congestion is a major problem in North Carolina, while traffic in rural areas is stagnant. Instead of mandating roads in places fewer and fewer people are driving, Jackson said, we should change the formula which currently guides where new roads are built.
He urged adoption of a new formula that encourages building where the people are - allocating funds mostly based on population.

Perhaps the most bold of Jackson's prescriptions, the news release said, is to enhance local responsibility for transportation needs, which would empower local communities and relieve some of state government's burdens. Reducing state responsibility in some avenues would enable policymakers to focus on the major roads that form the backbone of the road network and carry the most traffic.

North Carolina should give counties and municipalities new revenue powers, said Jackson, which could include a local gas tax, vehicle utility fees, or transportation impact fees. Revenue should also be used for maintenance and operations as well as construction, he said.