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Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts on CMS budget

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The background was fitting for a talk about school funding with County Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts. She and I met last Monday at West Charlotte High School, just before the announcement of the big Project LIFT initiative, which is tailored to strengthen schools that feed into West Charlotte High. Roberts was expansive in her vision of the critical role of education, but obviously felt constrained in terms of available options to keep CMS schools from painful cuts. We started by comparing private education initiatives and public funding.

Creative Loafing: Do you hope this kind of initiative [Project LIFT] will lead to more involvement by businesses and foundations to help public schools?

Jennifer Roberts: This is a great initiative, and I'd love to see more of these things happen. At the same time, we can't forget the public responsibility. What you don't want to do is to have the expectation that businesses will pay for it all, or nonprofits will take care of it. We know that the only entity out there with a mission to serve everyone is our representative government. We serve everyone as part of our obligation to our fellow citizens. So, yes, it's wonderful to have private business and nonprofits step up; we welcome the partnerships and we continue to look forward to those. But all of us, as public taxpayers, also have a serious obligation to support some basic government services that provide a safety net, that provide a foundation for the future, for everyone to have an equal opportunity.

You've made it clear that you strongly support education and want to soften the impact of potential school funding cuts. Why are you so ardent about schooling?

I'd say three main reasons. First of all, education is the basis of democracy. If you don't have informed citizens, you can't make good decisions. And if you want those decisions to be strong, to be able to deal with the complex world we live in, education is the foundation. It's also the foundation for economic success, both individually and for communities. The transitions in our economy make it clear that we're a knowledge economy. We need judgment and critical thinking, we need informed problem-solving more than ever, because of the complex nature of what we're doing. This is one reason that education is harder now than ever. People tend to forget that kids today are learning more complex systems than we ever confronted, in terms of new input, problem-solving, diverse cultures, all of that coming together. If you're going to be a player in this world, if you're going to make your own living, you have to be able to read, write, understand and develop critical thinking. And the third thing is equal opportunity. The one thing — and I know this as a woman growing up in the South — education is the one leveler in our society. If you come from a hard neighborhood, from a place that has no resources, how do you get out? You get educated. And that's what helps you take a step out of whatever circumstances you started in.

The problem, though, is that even though education is one of the pillars of civilized society, there are plenty of people, particularly in tight times, who either don't grasp that, or just shrug it off. With such huge cuts being projected for the CMS budget — dependent on what the new GOP legislature in Raleigh does — how do you go about financing the schools so they don't suffer real setbacks? For instance, we've called for a temporary tax increase, but is there a chance that we could see that?

Well, we're looking at revenue right now. And in a year of property revaluations, there are complex ways to think about revenue. We're expecting a 6 to 8 percent increase in values, so if we keep the same tax rate [aka a "tax rate-neutral" approach], we're looking at going from $83 billion to $92 billion as our tax base. But you could also go "revenue-neutral," where you lower the tax rate and anyone whose house went up in value by an average amount would pay the same amount of tax as before revaluation. A lot of counties are going to tax rate-neutral. Half the counties in the state have raised their tax rates.

So what would you like for us to do here?

First, I'd like to see the county manager bring us options. I'd like to see what it looks like to be revenue-neutral; people want to know what you would lose if you do that. In our situation, there are things that are going to increase in price, like gasoline or health benefits, so if we keep the same revenue as last year, we'd have to cut even more than the $100 million in cuts we're already looking at. If, on the other hand, we go to tax rate-neutral, which would mean an additional $50 million in property tax, we could fill some of that gap, although not all $100 million. I do not anticipate raising the tax rate — I don't think there's any support for that. So, let's get the county manager to bring us the revenue-neutral budget, and the tax rate-neutral budget, and let's look at specific priorities that we would lose or gain, depending on where we set that rate. Then if we can come down somewhere in between, having the rate go down a little, but not all the way to neutral, we can save some of the priorities that would be cut otherwise.

Would there be any support on the Commission for an income tax on people who work in Charlotte but live outside the county?

That's something where we'd have to get state legislation passed in order to implement, and right now, our state delegation has no appetite for new revenue whatsoever.

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