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County's fiscal mismanagement shafts taxpayers, schools

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For the mere cost to the individual taxpayer of a chicken sandwich and some fries, we could float a bazillion dollars worth of bonds and build a bunch of stuff that would enrich our lives or something, then-Mecklenburg County Commissioner Parks Helms told us again and again as the county blew through billion dollars worth of debt.

By the time the tax increases came, county leaders knew people would have forgotten the bonds and the massive credit card bill. Then they hiked taxes, sometimes by double digits, and the cost of that chicken sandwich ran into the hundreds of dollars each time they did it. A lot of it was necessary. A lot of it was not.

ImaginOn, Ray's Splash Planet and Uptown land for baseball. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bonds to renovate half-full schools. If you opposed any of it, you were against Charlotte.

Last week, the bill for all those chicken sandwiches finally came due. Helms' political legacy may be heartburn that can't be addressed with antacid. Borrowing got so out of control during his tenure that the county is now at risk of losing its top credit rating for voter approved bonds, the kind of thing that happens in places like Detroit.

The county is facing a $90 million shortfall in next year's budget and a $57.1 million shortfall in this year's. The slow economy is partly to blame for this, but taxpayers aren't being given the full story. In fact, they are hardly being given an explanation at all.

Last year, county leaders finally ran up against their credit limit. So to fix it, they simply liberalized their borrowing policies, effectively raising their debt limit, knowing darn well that it would begin to hurt their credit.

Then, while the economy turned south and many taxpayers were struggling to keep or find employment, the county commission went on another obscene spending spree, putting $250 million in park and recreation bonds on the fall ballot, despite warnings that their actions could cause debt limit problems. All together, commissioners put on the ballot or sought to borrow nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars worth of stuff they couldn't afford.

The county has accumulated a massive debt load through gross fiscal mismanagement. I use the word gross because incredibly, county leaders were forced last week to ask the schools to return $2.6 million that had already been allocated to the classroom. Again, this was just three months after putting a $250 million park and recreation bond on the ballot. Did no one see this coming? Which is more important, parks or schools? Hello?

These are also the same county commissioners who over the past year have schemed to spend millions to bring baseball to Charlotte.

This simple question of which is a priority, parks or baseball or schools, isn't one that has ever been seriously contemplated here, except by people who are quickly shushed. The problem is that the local political ethic dictates that we must never choose. We must always have everything. Anything less would be shortchanging Charlotte. If we don't buy, have or build everything that everyone else has, we won't be growing. And if we aren't growing, we won't technically be going forward, which according to local groupthink is the same thing as going backward, which is a shameful thing that must never happen here.

That this moment was coming was so obvious that local bloggers like Jeff Taylor at Meckdeck.com were predicting it last year. Yet county leaders were either in denial or didn't care.

This week, the county also announced that it would have to defer the sale of hundreds of millions of bonds for school construction and Central Piedmont Community College, a humiliating blow for local leaders who sold the bonds to voters.

Yet in a remarkable show of financial tone-deafness, the results of a study by a "library consultant" hired by the county were released last week. Among other things, the consultant recommends that if we want to keep up with other cool places, we simply must install book-dispensing units along the light rail lines, The Charlotte Observer reported. These units let riders swipe their library cards and choose from a selection of several hundreds of books.

Hmmm. Book-dispensing units or schools. That'll be a tough one.


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