To those who aren't familiar with the inner workings of Mecklenburg politics, it probably seems bizarre. Why would the hard-core liberals who control the Mecklenburg County Commission suddenly want to raise taxes to combat crime? These folks have never seen a tax hike proposal they didn't like, but the combating crime part doesn't add up.
These are, after all, the same politicians who two months ago were busy attempting to figure out how to get out of spending money on crime. They even hired a consultant to study how to get out of paying for more jail space. Among the well-received ideas the consultant proposed was to ask the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police to arrest 20 percent fewer people. The same county commissioners who now want to raise taxes to fight crime thought that was a smashing idea.
So why, two months later, are they contemplating a quarter-cent sales tax hike to "combat crime?" The politically naïve would say that must be because their high-dollar Dilworth constituents got so fed up with being victimized by repeat criminals that they marched on the government center. That's part of it, but not the whole picture. The marching Dilworthers merely gave these commissioners cover for what appears to be a brilliant revenue grab that has little to do with crime.
The quarter-cent sales tax that Mecklenburg County Commissioner Dumont Clarke proposed is projected to generate $45 million over the first two years. That's about twice what is needed to put a top-notch computer system in place and hire enough staff to end the prosecutorial log jam that is turning career criminals back on the streets because there aren't enough district attorneys and court staff to prosecute them. Since the computer system is a one-time expense, this is quite a pot of dough.
The official numbers haven't been released yet, but the same commissioners are proposing to pay for jails with some of the rest of it. That's the part to watch. Why? Because they would have had to pay for jails anyway. It's one of the responsibilities of the county commission. So if they can get a fat new revenue source to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars of jail space and maybe even eventually for the operation of the jails or jail alternatives, it frees up the property tax money they have always had to spend on jails for more pet projects. Sure, they'd have to throw a couple million a year at the district attorney's office, which would no doubt pain them, given their utter disinterest in doing so in the past. And they'd have to spring for electronic monitoring bands to track dangerous criminals out on bond. But they'd be getting -- conservatively -- at least $10 million extra a year from the sales tax and wouldn't have to use the equivalent in property tax revenue to pay the jail bill again.
Like I said -- brilliant.
As an added bonus, the commissioners could claim they were tough on crime, which would chill out the disgruntled Dilworthers, who probably wouldn't figure out for years that they'd been had. And the average citizen doesn't understand the difference between "jail" and "prison." Jail is merely where they hold you until you are tried if you can't bond out. Prison is the place you are sent to do your sentence. Building jails is necessary to accommodate population growth, but it doesn't necessarily deter crime the way building more prisons and using them does.