Thursday, March 18, 2010

Opinion: Focus on the numbers as emotional budget woes hit Charlotte hard

Thursday’s county budget drama focused on libraries, with the news that about half the Charlotte library branches will close in two weeks and 140 people will be laid off. The branch closest to Merry Oaks, Plaza Midwood, has been spared, but the ripple effects of layoffs will affect us all.

Outrage from book lovers on Twitter ran strong, and library staffers immediately pointed reading fans to a donation site and a Facebook fan page. At this point, it’s unclear whether those donations will prevent branch closings.

A few people remained skeptical, though, about the emotional appeal. Those who have watched budget talks over the years in Mecklenburg County have seen proposed cuts targeted at our county’s most valued institutions. The drama seems designed to soften up the largest number of employees, friends and family to be open to the idea of raising taxes.

But in this Great Recession year, I suggest some caution. Raising taxes can endanger struggling families as much as the ripple effect of county layoffs. And buried deep in budget documents are places where cuts can be made with less impact on the community.

Digging into the budget documents, however, takes time and effort by individuals and county employees, and often the numbers are quite unclear.

The budget document for last fiscal year was a book, 613 pages long and 24.7 megs of PDF download, printed in full color with photos and promotional information as well as numbers (at a cost of what?). Very few Mecklenburg residents, or perhaps even county commissioners, can dig through that book and find the hidden corners where money could be cut without affecting county residents as much as libraries or schools. A more filtered, clear presentation of the numbers might give residents and commissioners an easier way of finding other money to cut.

Yet to come: A likely crisis and emotional appeal to save our schools from similar budget cuts. Last year’s problem caused teachers to be laid off and then asked to return two months later when federal money arrived. Many teachers chose to avoid the drama and move into other opportunities. Let’s hope this year doesn’t include a repeat.

Throughout the drama, some numbers remain clear: This recession hits lower-paid employees harder than those with higher salaries, and the ripple effect of that pattern affects everyone. That pattern has been common in private industry; it doesn’t have to be the pattern in our local government.

Links for digging deeper:

Salaries for county, city and school employees, from The Charlotte Observer.

Current budget documents from Mecklenburg County.

2009-2010 budget document, (the big one of 24.7 megs. It’ll take you two hours to skim through.)

2008-2009 budget documents, (a svelte 10 megs).

Donation page for the library.

Crossroads Charlotte job discussion report, with tips and noting the disparities of who is affected most by unemployment.

Image: Cover of the 24.7 meg, 613-page budget book for 2009-2010

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