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Cox Gets Methodical

Republican majority sharpens budget ax

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Anyone who follows the news knows that on Nov. 5, the Mecklenburg County Commission was taken over by Republicans. What they may not realize is that the commission will now be run by two successful business owners, an accountant, a businessman and a homemaker with a fiscally conservative bent, all of whom are determined to put a halt to tax increases and to run the county more like a business.

At-large Republican County Commissioner Tom Cox, who will likely be elected chairman when the new commission is sworn in, ran on a 14-point plan that, if followed, would radically change the way the county spends money and taxes residents. Cox's plan is based on a premise that's bound to cause some debate. He says that the years of large spending increases for schools, parks, libraries and CPCC to make up for the county's past financial neglect are over.

"I think we have one of the best library systems in the state or even the country," said Cox. "So why do we need to keep investing? It's time to say we've caught up. Instead of the county being in catch-up mode, we need to go into maintenance mode."

If Cox's plan is followed, rather than figuring out how much they want to spend and then hiking taxes to pay for it, the commission will do things in reverse -- they'll set the tax rate first, then figure out what they can afford to do. The tax rate, they say, will be revenue neutral, which means that overall, taxes won't rise or fall, but should stay about the same.

"It gives us a concept for facing our fiscal future," said Cox. "We didn't have one before. In my four years on the board, we've never had a strategy for spending except fund every need and want."

Over the last four years, the countywide tax rate has increased by 31 percent, Cox says, and if the commission doesn't stop spending the way it has been, the tax rate will double from $975 per year on a $150,000 home to $1,950 per year in 2010. The catch is that in order to put the plan in place, it will mean making budget choices that are bound to cause a lot of teeth gnashing.

Among the 14 points in Cox's plan, which all five Republicans signed on to before they were elected, are plans to slow down the construction of new schools, libraries and other capital projects to save interest costs on the more than $700 million in voter-approved bonds which the county has yet to issue. To do this, the commission would take three years to construct what it had planned to do in two.

The plan would also slow down the rate of growth in spending for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system, which has grown at about 10.5 percent per year over the last four years. To do this, the commission would create a per-pupil funding formula and increase the amount the county gives the school system by the number of additional students it takes in each year. Capital projects like the funding of new schools would be done according to the same formula and would take into account how many new seats were needed rather than which schools the school board wanted to build or renovate. According to the plan, buildings need substantial renovation after 30 years, so the amount of money commissioners ask for in future bond referendums would be equal to what it would cost to replace or rehabilitate 1/30th of the existing seats each year. The plan also puts aside more money than has been spent in the past for preventive maintenance for schools, libraries, parks, jails and other capital projects.

Democrat Parks Helms, who currently chairs the commission, said that now might not be the time to start basing school funding on a per pupil basis.

"While that might be good in a school system that is stabilized, I don't think it is applicable in a system like this one when we're trying to implement a school choice plan that runs the great risk of resegregating our schools."

That's where the budget debate this spring might become racially charged. A per-pupil funding formula the Republicans want is a more racially neutral strategy that focuses more on how many seats the system needs and less on who sits in them. In contrast, the general philosophy of most of the school board and the Democrats on the county commission is that inner-city schools and those with high percentages of students on free and reduced lunch should be rebuilt or renovated in order to attract better teachers and students of higher income levels. The problem is that since parents can now choose where their kids go to school within a choice zone, many suburban schools have become overflowing trailer farms while many inner city schools, where much of the renovation and new construction money in this fall's bond package was directed, are significantly below capacity and could hold dozens to hundreds more students.

If none of the above gets the ire of liberal activists up, the tinkering the Republican commissioners plan for the sales and property tax rates will. Earlier this year, Cox voted with the Democrat majority commission led by Helms, to raise the county sales tax by half a cent. To compensate for that, the new Republican-led commission plans to slash the property tax rate by what will likely amount to 11 percent to offset the increase in the sales tax.

"Sales taxes are more regressive and hurt the poor," said Republican Bill James, who voted against the sales tax increase. "However, that's Parks Helms' problem for insisting it be increased."

Helms, who raised the hackles of some taxpayers who blame him for the large tax increases that he oversaw as chairman of the commission, took a far less combative tone than James.

"This is the Tom Cox agenda and he will have my support to the extent that I believe it to be a responsible and fiscally sound plan," said Helms. "At the same time, I know there are substantial needs in this county that will be even greater in this recessionary period. In North Carolina, one million people live in poverty and 62,000 of those live in Mecklenburg County. It presents a variety of problems that only government can deal with."

Cox says Mecklenburg County hasn't been hit as hard by the recession as other counties, but doesn't dispute that there are a lot of needs on the part of the poor.

"I can agree with Parks on that point, but still not vote for a tax hike," said Cox.

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