Community Conversation with Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio

Community Conversation with Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio says the county is doing its part to try and make life better for many who still struggle. About six years ago there was a Harvard study that stated Charlotte was 50 out of 50 among large cities when it comes to economic mobility. The study states if a kid was born in poverty he or she has a 4.4% chance to escape poverty. This means some people will have a tough time living the American Dream in Charlotte. Diorio gave her definition of the American Dream.

“Everybody in the United States is going to look at the American Dream,” Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said. “Has the same access and opportunity to obtain the things that they care about, whatever that may be - that there are no barriers to entry and there are no barriers to access.”

The county manager knows there is a big difference between living the American Dream and living in reality for many in Charlotte.

“We have issues around segregation,” Diorio said. “We have issues around race and we have issues with people being able to manage those barriers - to be able to move up the economic ladder here in Charlotte Mecklenburg.”

Diorio says the county is using tax dollars to help people get out of poverty in Mecklenburg County. After the Harvard study findings were released, Mecklenburg County formed a committee to study the issue and to come up with some solutions.

It was agreed there were three areas of focus that is believed to have the greatest influence on changing the future of many people who are struggling and finding it hard to make ends meet. Those areas are Early Care and Education, College and Career Readiness and Child and Family Stability.

Diorio says the county is addressing Early Education in this year’s nearly $2 billion budget. Last year the county raised taxes to provide free Pre-K for many families that couldn’t afford it.

“We’ve done a bunch of things actually,” the county manager said. “And I think one of the things that we are most proud of is the way we have embraced early childhood education because that was the number one key determinant in the report - is access to early care and education can really change the trajectory of a child’s life. We have done a couple of things with that and now with the Fiscal Year 20 budget - we funded enough slots to clear the child subsidy waiting list - so anybody on that waiting list that meets the criteria will have access to early child care for their child. We have also done year two of our Meck Pre-K program. We are bringing up another 36 classrooms - so we will be serving over 1200 children.”

Another area the county is addressing is affordable housing.

“For the first time we have embraced the notion of getting involved with affordable housing,” Diorio said. “So our budget has $11 million for new rental subsidy program. We are working with Habitat for Humanity on their critical home repair program - doing a lot of work around eviction prevention so that people who are at risk of losing their home will have access to legal counsel to be able to help them mitigate that. So we are really trying to do everything that we can in addition to what we normally do. We always provide wrap around services for those at risk or becoming homeless.”

There were 91 recommendations made and more than 100 implementation tactics and policy considerations suggested to help with economic mobility. The county manager has some ideas about policy changes that need to be made.

“I think we need to have more cooperation and help from the state level - the General Assembly,” Diorio said. “In particular around income thresholds - to be able to take advantage of some of these tax relief programs that we have working with us to add tools to our tool box and make our ability to create more affordable housing a little bit easier. We talk about the ability to tax abatement for affordable housing developments - other parts of the country have that as a tool in the their toolbox and they are much more successful than we are.”

Diorio is on the Leading On Opportunity Task Force. Its job is to make sure the recommendations don’t collect dust and there is movement when it comes to opportunity. The Task Force is scheduled to have a retreat in September to continue to discuss next steps.

“We do have leading on opportunity organization - we have an executive director,” Diorio said. “We have community engagement specialists really out trying to understand what is all the organizations and what is everybody doing around this issue, because if you remember - when this report came out the community really embraced this and everybody wants to be part of the solution and that’s awesome. So now the question is what’s everybody doing - how do we track what is everybody doing and how do we measure those outcomes.”

WBTV is presenting a Community Conversation to discuss economic mobility in our area. The special is entitled American Dream vs Charlotte’s Reality. It will air Wednesday, July 24th at 7PM. It will have local leaders talking about solutions and what they are doing to promote economic mobility. It will also have real people discussing how they are surviving in Charlotte and asking if they can achieve the American Dream in Charlotte.

“I see the light at the end of the tunnel in that we have a tremendously committed group of people working on this,” the county manager said. “But I think people also need to understand is - that this work is generational and so we put a kid in Pre-K today - he’s four years old - we have to wait and see what happens when they are 18. We are laying the groundwork now.”

Watch Community Conversation: American Dream vs Charlotte’s Reality on July 24,2019 at 7 p.m. on WBTV News.

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