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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Charlotte City-County Merger May Keep Local Democrats In Control FOREVER!

Talk Of Charlotte-Mecklenburg City-County Merger (Demcrats In Control), Its Back!

Spurred by the recent budget crisis in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, county and city leaders are discussing merging some departments, including human resources, construction permitting, government TV, and Medic and fire.

For the first time in years, there is also talk of the ultimate merger: Creating a single Charlotte-Mecklenburg government with one mayor, one manager and one council or board of commissioners.

A fully combined government would probably save taxpayers money - though not nearly enough to close the current city and county budget shortfalls. A single government would, however, give elected officials more ways to balance the budget - or, more accurately, more places to cut.

For the upcoming fiscal year, Mecklenburg County has proposed cutting $81.1 million, mostly from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the libraries, and Parks and Recreation.

The city is in much better shape. A series of small cuts has closed a roughly $10 million shortfall, and it has found enough money to give employees 2 percent raises that will cost $6.1 million.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and County Commission chair Jennifer Roberts, both Democrats, are in favor of a complete merger. Foxx said residents are confused as to why the city is planning to give raises while the county is making steep cuts.

"People don't get it," Foxx said. "People just care about government working for them. They don't care what the label is."

Foxx and Republican City Council member Edwin Peacock want the city to make a one-time payment to the library system to prevent all or some of 12 planned branch closings in July. They have urged their colleagues to step outside their traditional roles and help bail out the libraries, which are almost entirely funded by the county.

The City Council is sharply divided on the issue, with at least five of 11 council members against the financial help, which could be $2 million.

Pros, cons of merging

The city and county have already consolidated a host of functions.

The city handles 14 departments or functions for both the city and the county, including police, water and sewer, 311 and emergency management.

The county provides service for 10 areas, including schools, tax collection, elections and parks.

On April 28, Foxx and Roberts sent a letter to county commissioners and City Council members urging them to study further consolidation of four areas. The letter didn't mention political consolidation, though it has been discussed informally among elected officials.

Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton said cost savings shouldn't be the main driver of consolidating departments. He said instead elected officials must determine if it will improve customer service.

"There isn't that much redundancy," Walton said.

The City Council has given city staff the OK to study consolidating the four areas. Walton said there have been no formal steps toward consolidating the two governments completely.

When the issue was last discussed in the mid-1990s, Walton said the city and county determined there were only a "few million dollars" in savings from a consolidated government, out of combined operating and capital budgets of roughly $3 billion.

Some of those savings would come from eliminating top administrators. For instance, in a combined government, there would be only one manager. Walton made roughly $216,000 for fiscal year 2009; County Manager Harry Jones made $254,000.

If Charlotte and Mecklenburg had a single government, the budget-cutting might look different this year. A number of city departments, including police, fire, transportation and engineering, have been spared significant cuts.

And the city is moving ahead with some controversial projects, including setting aside more than $10 million to build a streetcar. It plans to spend roughly $400,000 on a 1/5-mile stretch of sidewalk on Park Road, which is opposed by residents who are upset the city will cut down trees for the project.

Under a combined government, officials could make cuts from more departments, which could mean less severe cuts from schools and libraries.

"The resources don't get larger," Walton said. "Does that mean police and fire get smaller so libraries and parks can get larger? If it were consolidated, you would have that conversation."

Long process

Several U.S. cities - such as Jacksonville, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn. - have consolidated city and county governments.

The idea of merging city and county governments in Charlotte has been discussed off and on for decades. In 1971, voters defeated a merger. In 1996, the Charlotte City Council voted against putting political consolidation on the ballot.

Creating a single government is a long process. The city and county would first form a commission to study the issue, and the elected bodies would have to approve consolidation. A merger would then have to be approved by voters and the N.C. General Assembly.

There would be a number of questions. What would the new government be called - Charlotte or Charlotte-Mecklenburg? How many elected officials would serve on the policy-making board? How would the county assume the city's debt?

The county's six other municipalities - Pineville, Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson - would also have to decide whether they would join or stay independent.

When the City Council voted against having a public merger vote in 1996, two Republicans joined with black Democrats to defeat the vote. The African-American members worried that a city-county government would make it difficult for blacks to be elected. The strength of black voters would have been diluted by adding mostly white voters living outside the city limits.

County commissioner Bill James, a Republican, said there was also debate as to the makeup of the new board, and how many county-wide seats there would be.

"As long as those questions are still out there, then there will be problems," he said.

Since the 1996 vote, the city has annexed much of the county, and only 25,596 registered voters live in unincorporated areas. The unincorporated voters tend to be whiter and more Republican than city voters, but they might not have a significant impact on combined city-county elections.

There are more than 470,000 registered voters in the city.

"All of the representation issues can be addressed," Foxx said. "Everyone will have to yield to the higher goal of putting in place a governmental structure that's suitable for the new normal environment we're in."

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Sources:, McClatchy Newspapers, WCNC, Google Maps

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