City’s Proposed Budget Issues Answer To Call for Change
More money for cops, affordable housing—and some small but significant steps toward helping the needy
Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones presents his proposed 2018-19 city budget, which acts on affordable housing, police pay, and other citizen-oriented priorities that voters championed in November.
“We love that you’re an action-oriented council,” Marcus Jones, Charlotte’s city manager, told the assembled City Council on Monday night. Jones was wrapping up his 2018-19 budget presentation, a prelude to the council’s budget adoption on June 11; the 2018-19 fiscal year begins July 1. It’s a momentous budget, mainly because it’s the first under a new mayor, Vi Lyles, and an 11-member council with six new members. Lyles and the new members were elected in November with an explicit mandate from the voters—get things done, now—and for all the new council members’ stirring words, mission statements, and publicly expressed impatience since then, this was the city administration’s chance to show how serious it was about change.
Judging by what Jones and his staff presented, it’s pretty serious. The main initial takeaway concerns the first thing everyone wants to know about a proposed city budget: Does it include a property tax increase? Yes, it does—one cent added to the current city rate of 48 cents per $1,000, meaning the owner of a $250,000 home would pay an extra $25 per year.
The penny increase would raise $9.8 million, covering assorted neighborhood improvements and additional support for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. That includes a 6.5-percent pay raise—lifting CMPD officers’ base pay to the highest for any department in North Carolina, Jones said—and a first for CMPD: higher pay for rookie cops with four-year degrees. Chief Kerr Putney has talked with some alarm over the last year about his department’s nearly 10 percent turnover rate, saying he needs help to recruit and retain officers. “We think that’s going to be a huge recruitment tool,” Jones said.
The other big news: a more than tripling of the city’s Housing Trust Fund for affordable housing, from $15 million to $50 million, an increase Lyles had publicly advocated. The amount, Jones was quick to both point out to council members and include in his accompanying PowerPoint, represents the “largest affordable housing allocation in Charlotte’s history,” appropriate to help ease the most severe affordable housing crisis—a roughly 34,000-unit shortage—in Charlotte’s history.
Those are the main points; the entire proposal is online if you really want to dig into it. Council members will start digesting it this week, in advance of a public hearing Monday. But the details at this point seem to matter less than the city staff’s embrace of the fierce-urgency-of-now approach to serving the public that the voters demanded in November, and which council members discussed at length during their retreat early this year. Budgets reflect and codify priorities, and Jones’ proposal is filled with the commitments to public safety, jobs, affordable housing, and enhancing public transit that the previous council had marked as urgent in its Letter to the Community after the Keith Scott demonstrations in September 2016.
Many of those show up in smaller items. One example: a $500,000 pilot program called Aging In Place, meant to help cushion the blow of rising property values and expected higher tax bills for low-income homeowners 65 or older. District 2 Councilman Justin Harlow, one of the new breed, asked for it and was pleasantly surprised when Jones included it. “I just went to the manager and asked for a few things,” Harlow told me. “That’s a good budget—when everyone’s a little pissed off about something, but everybody gets a little something, too. There’s some good small stuff in there that’s going to impact communities right now versus some of these larger things that we maybe won’t see the deliverables on for a few years.”
Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt told me after the presentation Monday that it reflects what community leaders and council members have been saying for more than a year: that Charlotteans are tired of hearing city leaders talk. They want to see some real, concrete changes in their neighborhoods. The attitude is starting to suffuse every corner of the city government, down to the recently installed banners in the upstairs conference room where Jones delivered his presentation. “Building Community Together,” reads one that hangs just behind the mayor’s seat, beneath a wall clock. The last page of Jones’ PowerPoint makes clear that he knows what time it is: “The Time Is Now.”