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Fundamental change with budget cuts
Proposal would wipe out more than 300 county jobs
 
Published Thursday, May 20, 2010 11:04 am
by Michaela L. Duckett, For The Charlotte Post

PHOTO/PAUL WILLIAMS III
Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP President Rev. Kojo Nantambu (second from right) joined veterans Tuesday at a rally to support keeping Mecklenburg County's Veterans Services Office open. County Manager Harry Jones's proposed 2010-11 budget would cut VSO's staffing in half.

More than 200 veterans gathered in Marshall Park Tuesday in support of the Mecklenburg Veterans Services Office, which was at risk of being closed July 1 due to the county’s budget trouble.


It was spared, but not without changes.


Following the rally, veterans marched to the Government Center where County Manager Harry Jones presented his recommendations. They marched out of Budget Director Hyong Yi’s presentation upon learning VSO’s staff of 14 would be cut in half.
As they exited the chambers in unison, someone shouted “You should be ashamed of yourself,” and another said, “after all we have done for you, you do this to us.”


Those seven VSO employees make up a small portion of the hundreds of county employees who face losing their jobs. The proposed budget calls for the elimination of 428 positions and laying off 357 employees, most from libraries and parks and recreation.


Jones’ proposed budget totals $1.3 billion, with $81.1 million in cuts. It is 5.7 percent less than the current year’s budget. 


“I regret having to make recommendations that will result in people through no fault of their own losing their jobs, but I have a responsibility,” said Jones. “The consequence of having this service history is that it has resulted in deep entrenched expectation among many residents that this is the only acceptable variety level and quality of services.”


Jones said constituents’ expectations make change difficult, but he warned Mecklenburg will not return to what it has been any time in the foreseeable future, if ever. He recommended commissioners “resist the temptation to restore what has been cut” when the economy rebounds in order to keep county from being in same position when faced again with hard economic times.


His proposal calls for $47.4 million in cuts to county services including libraries, parks and recreation and the Department of Social Services.
Although cuts to libraries were slightly less than expected, some branches will likely close. Services and hours of operation will also be reduced to cover the loss of $14.7 million.


At least four recreation centers are expected to close after $15.3 million was cut from the parks and recreation budget.


Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools face a $21.3 million cut. After requesting an increase of more than $15 million from last year’s allotment, the district is looking at a shortfall of $500,000 more than they anticipated in their worst-case scenario. The district will receive $12 million towards the opening of Hough and Rocky River high schools.


Central Piedmont Community College is facing $1.5 million in cuts.


The Sheriff’s Office is targeted for 53 layoffs. Its longtime Work Release and Restitution Center, electronic monitoring and work crew programs are also in jeopardy.


However, not every department is facing cuts. Internal Audit will be given an additional $230,000 to hire three more auditors to review county spending. A new Child Support Enforcement Office has been created to assume responsibilities previously handled by the state.


 Jones’ recommended budget is $156.7 million less than fiscal 2009. To put that in context, Jones explained, “This means that in two years we will have cut more than the total budget of all but 13 of the counties of North Carolina.”


Jones said the aim of his proposal was “to preserve the core of county government and stimulate progress.” He said what is taking place is a redefinition of the county for substantial reductions in service, programs and personnel to bring expenses down to match available funding. He said county government must be reshaped and redesigned to ensure long-term fiscal security.


He called on commissioners to rethink the way they budget in the future and proposed new ideas for establishing a capital and debt fund supported by dedicated property taxes, including a plan to grow revenue sources to a specified amount, and keeping those funds segregated from the general operating budget. 


He said money taken this year from the county’s reserves to cover operating costs should be returned to rebuild a healthy fund balance that should not be used to sustain day to day operations.


“Our debt is too high,” Jones said. “Our fund balance has dwindled to levels inconsistent with a strong financial foundation.”


Jones also suggested bringing all agencies supported by the county together under one master capital plan. “We need to think differently to make joint projects the expectation rather than the exception,” he said.


Taking into consideration the suggestions made by Jones, County commissioners agreed to look into other ways of doing the budget in the future including zero based budgeting and consolidation of services to include more collaboration with the city.


Other suggestions made by commissioners included new funding models such as a per pupil amount for CMS or a guaranteed percentage for the libraries to give them some certainty of what they can expect year to year.


A public hearing is scheduled for May 27 at 6 p.m. Speakers can sign up by calling (704) 336-2086 or by logging onto www.mecklenburgcountync.gov.


The board is scheduled to vote on a final budget on June 15.

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