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Lessons learned from our current financial woes


Put it all together and imagine how this looks to outsiders. This will soon be a community that closed more than half its libraries, slashed 1,000 jobs from its schools and mothballed some schools it couldn't afford to run. All of this while the community invested tens of millions of dollars in the first phase of a $500 million streetcar built, as Charlotte City Council member Nancy Carter once explained, to attract international restaurants to the Central Avenue corridor.

That same Charlotte City Council is poised to slash the school crossing guards and school resource officers it funds to keep children safe while offering city employees a 2-percent raise. And that's with a local unemployment rate of nearly 12 percent. For those who are counting, as Jeff Taylor of the blog is, that's between 45,000 and 50,000 people who have lost their jobs locally since the recession began. Those are jobs we haven't gotten back and probably won't any time soon.

Contrast that with the city, which currently employs 6,700, down from 6,702 a year ago, The Charlotte Observer reports. City bureaucrats have been insulated from the pain of the recession, which has yet to permeate the walls of the government center.

I wish City Council members could be forced to stare down the tens of thousands of taxpayers who have been unemployed for months, who are no doubt struggling to hold on to their cars and homes, and explain why it is that city employees deserve raises paid for by unemployed city property owners. Heck,Council members should be forced to explain to the masses why they aren't debating cutting city workers' salaries.

From a distance, with the personalities and the politics stripped away, a look at what the local leadership does, rather than what is says, produces the stark picture of our priorities laid out above.

If someone ran for office on it, it could only be called a screw-the-children platform. There's simply no other conclusion one can draw. The only people of lower priority to the local political class than the children are perhaps the unemployed taxpayers.

Granted it's the county closing schools and libraries. The city is building a streetcar that will dead end at a mall that looks like Beirut post-bombing. The city and the county have different leaders and two very different levels of competence in money management.

But it's all part of the same set of priorities left over from a recently bygone era when our biggest worry was where the money would come from to cap I-277 and turn it into a park (God forbid we ever had to evacuate Uptown) so we could become a tourist destination.

Last week, in a stunning piece, Observer editorial page editor Taylor Batten took county leaders to task for their fiscal mismanagement, contrasting Mecklenburg, which blew its credit limit by $157 million and now must close schools and libraries, and Wake County, which doesn't seem to be doing these things. He called the difference in the fiscal management between here and elsewhere "stark." Conveniently left out of Batten's piece was the part where the Observer editorial board he oversees goaded the county into every one of those bond package spending sprees over the last decade while assuring taxpayers that we could afford it all. Nothing would ever cost more a month than an extra chicken sandwich and some fries.

It is yet more evidence of what I've long suspected -- that the Observer's editorial board members have no idea what they are talking about. Even more telling was Mecklenburg County Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts' response to Batten. In it, she argued that Wake County and Mecklenburg aren't comparable. In the process, without meaning to, she revealed the real problem -- and it is stark.

The Wake County school system, she wrote, has 6,015 more students than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools does. But Wake has 159 schools while CMS has 176. At a cost of $20 million to $30 million a school, you can see why we might have run into financial problems, and why we're talking about closing under-filled schools now. All this excess school building had nothing to do with the children, by the way. It was about the politicians who held the majority vote on the school board and county commission building new schools or rebuilding old ones in their districts to demonstrate they could bring home the bacon.

The political class, including the Observer, recoiled from the idea of prioritizing our needs and our wants. It was never even up for discussion.

Add in stuff like the brand-new Sugar Creek Greenway and creek restoration project (local price tag $17 million), and you can see why we're closing libraries.

From all of this, we can learn several simple lessons: It is no longer 1998. We can't have everything we want. And we'll be OK as a community, maybe even better off, if we don't get it.

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