Charlotte residents weigh in on proposed budget

Council members disappointed on public turnout during city budget meeting

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Only nine people signed up to speak. Six showed up. Which is why a Charlotte city council member said she concerned about the lack of public engagement in the critical budget discussion.

"It's interesting to see what is of importance to actually show up and have a voice on," Council member LaWana Mayfield said.

In the past, issues such as gender equality, drew overflow crowds and passionate speakers before the city council.

The fiscal year 2016 budget, that has a $22 million gap, is evidently not lighting a fire in residents.

"But then when we're talking about day to day quality of life - what services to cut, a tax increase - for you to say I'll take care of that via email, text message, or tweet about it is just interesting" Mayfield said.

Last week, the council heard options to cut expenses, increase fees and raise property taxes as they try to close the gap left by a tax cut and a drop in property tax values.

To replace lost revenue, the city could raise property taxes.

"We have significant expense reductions, service cutbacks, fund transfers, fee changes. But at some level, this budget is very much about taxes," said Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee.

The property tax rate would increase 1.76 cents per $100 valuation, and part of that is getting rid of the annual $47 solid waste fee for residential properties.

Interim Budget Director Kim Eagle said "that will go away under the recommendations and be built in to the property tax rate to address increase in cost in solid waste services."

According to city leaders, eighty percent of residential properties or homes valued at $267,000 or less will see a reduction in their property tax bill.

Ninety-five percent of properties, homes values at $538,700, will pay $4 more per month. Less than 1.5 percent of residential properties - valued at $1 million - will pay $10.75 more per month.

The proposed budget says the solid waste fee conversion to property tax will bring in $3.2 million. City expenses will be reduced by $4.5 million, and some city services will be cut to the tune of $3.1 million.

Public Safety will be spared. There are no recommended reductions to police or fire.

If Carlee has his way, there will be no layoffs of city workers. Ninety-nine positions will be eliminated through retirement and vacancies and city employees will get 1.5 percent pay increase instead of 3 percent.

Council member David Howard said he needs to review the proposal, and hear from the public. Howard told WBTV he wants to make sure Charlotte's future isn't being jeopardized.

"For me, it was to make sure we didn't make short term fixes to long term issues," Howard said. "To me, that was the capital investment program. I wanted to make sure whatever we did, we didn't mess with the fact we need to re-invest in this community."

The speakers who showed up Monday night covered a range of topics.

Charlotte's cultural community is not happy that the proposed budget could cut funding to the Arts.

"A commitment to culture should be part of a growth budget. We shouldn't have to come every year," said Pat Riley.

In a city that just saw one of its own – Patricia McBride of Charlotte Ballet - honored in Washington, supporters say the Arts is finally flourishing again in the Queen City. They believe slashing city funding will hurt the city.

"We exceed the attendance all professional sports combined" Riley added. "And it makes us more competitive for corporate relocations for large companies."

Riley told council members he understands the city is in a tight budget crunch "so what we're saying to you is we'll roll back our request to $350,000 a year for the next three years to at least start a track toward a road of recovery."

"I don't think the city manager has looked under all the rocks and turned over all the tables and chairs as he claims to have done," resident Mike O'Hara said.

O'Hara is taking issue with Charlotte city leaders offering city staff pay raises.

"I think that's out of bounds and I think to ask the taxpayers to pay for that on top of the other benefits is completely, completely out of line," he said.

For Sustain Charlotte, the concern is waste removal and the proposed to eliminate the annual $47 fee and turn into a part of the property tax.

The organization believes the city should charge people for that they throw out.

"In fact, replacing our current flat annual fee for a higher property tax to raise revenue needed for the waste collection and disposal makes the true costs of waste service invisible to residents," Shannon Binns of Sustain Charlotte said. "We urge you to implement variable rate pricing."

Binns believes the pay for what you throw plan would raise more money for the city.

"This approach is not only more economically efficient but it is also more equitable as those who choose to reduce their waste are not only subsidizing those who choose not to do so, it is more transparent," Binns said.

For the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, the concern is proposed fee increases for land development and rezoning.

"The amount of these increases is staggering," said Rob Nanfelt of REBIC.

Nanfelt said the city is proposing 117 percent increase for major commercial subdivision review and inspection, 103 percent increase for major residential subdivision review and inspection, 146 percent increase for Charlotte Dept of Transportation's {C-DOT}commercial building driveway permit fee, amd 170 percent increase in C-DOT's rezoning application review fee.

"The more Charlotte discourages future development by raising fees, the less competitive we become for future growth, meaning fewer jobs and small increases in tax base," Nanfelt told council members.

He added "for comparison, rezoning application in Fort Mill is $200. The proposed $5,000 fee is for the same service here. Residential development permit in Nashville is $2,000 compared to $8,500 in Charlotte should these proposed increases be approved."

Council members will have a budget straw vote on May 26.

The budget is scheduled for adoption June 8.

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