Monday, June 17, 2013

Mecklenburg tax hike not a done deal?

Updated 1:19 p.m. with Ridenhour's response to Fuller.

Mecklenburg County commissioners continue to battle over their $1.7 billion budget today, just 24 hours before what is normally a routine rubber-stamp approval of a budget hashed out in previous weeks.

Commissioners took a series of straw votes last Tuesday, tinkering with interim County Manager Bobbie Shields' recommended budget and tentatively approving a 2.35-cent tax rate increase. The final vote is scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday) night.

In an op-ed in Saturday's Observer, Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour blasted some of the board's Democrats for what he considered irresponsible spending and a flawed process. "There was zero fiscal sanity," Ridenhour wrote. "There was no process."

Now, Democrat Trevor Fuller is responding. In a letter to the Observer, Fuller says Republican commissioners "have been more vocal in the newspaper than they ever were during the meeting." The Republicans failed to offer any plan for cutting the budget, Fuller said, and he's offended by their "contrived outrage."

Republican Bill James responds to Fuller this morning. He suggests the board delay tomorrow night's budget vote and take another stab at cutting spending and eliminating the proposed tax hike. James proposes cutting $7 million from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and saving $4.8 million by eliminating pay raises for county employees, among other cuts.

Below is Fuller's letter, followed by James', followed by a response this afternoon from Ridenhour to Fuller.

Trevor Fuller's letter:

To the Editor of the Charlotte Observer:

Ever since our straw vote budget session last Tuesday, my Republican colleagues on the Mecklenburg County Commission have been griping publicly about the budget.  In fact, they have been more vocal in the newspaper than they ever were during our meeting.  In fairness, I am compelled to respond to these attacks.
At the outset, I acknowledge that this response may come across as partisan.  But it is difficult to take these after-the-fact criticisms seriously when Republicans effectively abandoned the budget process, and when they themselves were responsible for substantially more spending than the Democrats.
To hear my Republican colleagues tell the story, they were a budgetary Don Quixote, tilting at out-of-control spending and fighting the good fight to prevent a tax rate increase.  The truth is that Republicans were responsible for increasing the budget to the tune of about $750,000.  Is that the “fiscal responsibility” they’re talking about?  The total amount of spending offered by Democrats amounts to a grand total of $584,000, which is a mere 0.03% of the overall budget.  And this is what the Republicans are complaining so loudly about?  Meanwhile, Democrats were responsible for $2.2 million in cuts.  The result is that Democrats reduced the budget by a net $1.6 million.
Now, my Republican colleagues bemoan the fact that the budget contains a small tax rate increase, and act as if there was nothing they could do to stop it.  The evidence will show that we spent nearly four hours discussing and debating the budget.  In that time, Republicans offered only three budget cuts.  Even if every one of those cuts had been approved, we would have been nowhere near the “tax rate neutral” budget that Republicans contend we should have adopted.  So where was the Republican plan?
Rather than offering a plan, one Republican commissioner left the meeting halfway through.  If Republicans had not precipitously abandoned the budget process, we might have had fruitful discussions about areas in the budget that could be cut.  In fact, I was led to believe that my Republican colleagues and our board chair were having extensive discussions about the budget, and I was looking forward to considering the ideas they had.  I expected to hear those ideas sometime during our straw vote session.  But after their fellow commissioner left, the Republicans offered not one single budget cut for debate.  Not one.
Republicans cannot now complain about a process that they deserted.
Moreover, their bomb-throwing is not conducive to civil public discourse.  For sure, our colleagues’ contrived outrage plays very well in certain quarters.  Rather than complain after-the-fact, Republicans should have had the fortitude at least to fight for the so-called “fiscal sanity” they now crave.  Instead, they abandoned ship.  Then, to obscure their dereliction, they cast aspersions upon those who did participate meaningfully in the process.
In short, interim County Manager Bobbie Shields recommended a responsible budget.  Our adjustments made that recommended budget even better by lowering the proposed tax rate increase, and by doing our best to meet the needs of this community as fully as possible.
Cheap shots have never accomplished anything.

 Bill James' letter:

Trevor -
It is always possible to change the budget tomorrow evening and eliminate the tax rate increase. We have done it before.
Or….. we could do what Gaston County did and defer action from tomorrow night for a week or so until the NC General Assembly determines priorities. Gaston deferred a budget vote until the 28th.
Based on the various votes I made (to cut the budget) it didn’t seem to me that the 5 Democrats had any interest in reducing the budget to achieve a tax rate neutral budget. In fact, several ‘new’ programs were added that had been rejected by County staff. One health group hired a CPA that wasn’t a CPA. While Dumont and George would like to claim that they ‘fixed’ that with a restricted contingency; such action doesn’t fix incompetency. A Board that hires a CPA that isn’t one and doesn’t realize that until the audit is basically finished is incompetent and unworthy of a six-figure government grant. A Board that wants to hand out $1,200 for a lunch (and EVERYONE knows that is what it is) is hardly serious about financial accountability. A board that decides to increase a line item by $50,000 without any request from anyone is hardly doing proper ‘due diligence’. Ultimately,  fiscal responsibility means saying ‘no’ to your ‘friends’ (and all of those funded were the current ‘friends of Democrats’).
There are a variety of ways to balance the budget.  Handing out money Boss Tweed style however is not a propitious start towards fiscal sanity. If the Board can just raise sales tax revenues and then hand it out to special interests; it shows a lack of fiscal restraint and a lack of concern for the beleaguered taxpayer.
However, I am more than willing to find reasonable cuts to the budget to balance it. I had a balanced budget that evening. It seemed to me that the 5 Democrats were on a roll handing out money to the favored few and I believed then and now that was wrong.
To show that I had worked up a balanced budget (which I did with the Chair) attached is a PDF. There are options in this budget so that if some cuts are not preferred, others could be used. I am more than willing to work towards that goal but my impression of the straw voting was that the 5 Democrats (excluding Pat) had zero interest in being fiscally responsible.
If a majority is willing to work towards a tax rate neutral budget we can defer the vote tomorrow and have a straw vote session at the end of the week and revisit some of those matters.

(Click on chart below to see larger version)

And finally, Ridenhour's response:


I am not sure to whom you are referring when you state, “they have been more vocal in the newspaper than they ever were during our meeting”. As I recall, and the online video shows, all three of us were vocal participants during the meeting.

You reference the $750K increase to CPCC for which Karen advocated, and you suggest that as an example of Republican irresponsibility (you stated, “is that the ‘fiscal responsibility’ they’re talking about”).  Perhaps you have forgotten that Karen made that motion AFTER George made a motion to increase the budget for CPCC to the tune of $2.5M? I would say that Karen’s motion was an excellent example of bi-partisan compromise, something which was sorely lacking Tuesday night.

Perhaps that is why some Democrats don’t seem to understand fiscal responsibility. It is not a simple spending equation, where more spending equals less fiscal responsibility. It is a matter of HOW tax dollars are spent. Are you suggesting that increasing spending to CPCC by $750K is less responsible than the blatant disregard for the budget process by handing out tax dollars to favored projects? Surely you jest.

It is interesting that you state that the Democrats increased spending by $584,000 is “a mere 0.0003% of the overall budget”.  Tuesday night Karen showed that the Republicans’ proposed cut to CMS’ increase (which was still an increase over last year) would have resulted in a “mere”  0.005% cut to their overall budget, and some Democrats were shocked that we would dare suggest such a thing.

I was very disappointed Tuesday night. You and I were seated next to each other, and at the break you said to me, “I think Commissioner Ridenhour thinks we’re spending like drunken sailors”, to which I replied, “well, now that you mention it…” I know, based on that conversation and others, that you, too, were concerned about spending and taxes. Yet you did not show any support for substantial cuts which could have averted the tax hike. I would have far more faith in the Democrats’ supposed desire to avoid a tax hike had they not supported adding several additional organizations to the budget. At least that would show the public, “we’re raising taxes, but only because we need to fund CMS so they can support the growing community”. Instead, the message is, “we’re raising taxes to support CMS…and a host of other new organizations, many of whom did not satisfy our process requirements to receive funding”.

You mention that, “Republicans should have had the fortitude at least to fight for the so-called 'fiscal sanity' they now crave". We did, repeatedly. Yet our concerns and objections were summarily dismissed. But it is not too late to change course. We will meet tomorrow night, and hopefully we can find the courage to make some cuts and spare the citizens of Mecklenburg yet another tax increase. People of all political affiliations expect better from us than what happened last Tuesday.

This weekend I was washing my car, and my elderly neighbor stopped me. “Matthew, why are y’all raising my taxes this year?” “You’ll have to ask the Democrats about that one. We [Republicans] tried to prevent taxes from going up”, I replied. “But Matthew, I’m a Democrat!” 

Matthew Ridenhour
Commissioner, Mecklenburg County District 5


Kevin M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Bensman said...

A major problem with this whole debate is how the budget process is handled. Trying to adjust the Manager's budget of $1.7B in a few hours after the Manager prepares it is virtually impossible. The right way, done only by Cornelius as far as I know, is for the Board to set policy guidelines before the budget is prepared, setting limits on increases in capital, personnel and operating costs. If the Board instructs the Manager to prepare a budget with no tax increase, the Manager would do that. As much as 70 - 80% of the budget is locked down by previous commitments anyway. Focusing on the remainder is far more effective.

Anonymous192 said...

Jim Bensman is absolutely correct, IMO. I watched previous meetings where, several times, Bill James asked the interim county manager to prepare a revenue neutral budget; however this request was ignored both by the interim county manager and the board as a whole. It appears that "proactive" is a word that is not in the vocabulary of the majority of the BOCC.
Lynn Wilson, Cornelius

CharlotteObserver said...

A recent letter from Drunken Sailors stated that they were offended to be placed in the same league as the Democrats here in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

They feel they deserve an apology.

Anonymous192 said...

Two thumbs up, CO (the one that commented at 7:12.)