Council QuickiesLocal GovernmentNews & Opinion

Council Quickies: Budget Cuts and Other Straw Votes

May 30, 2024

Charlotte city skyline from North Tryon street, budget cuts
Charlotte skyline (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Charlotte City Council gathered for a budget straw vote meeting on Thursday afternoon with a goal of finalizing which recommendations from last week’s budget adjustments meeting would make it into the final Fiscal Year 2025 budget, which will be voted on next month. 

Many of the line items that would provide funding for specific organizations such as Block Love Charlotte were sent to committee to be hashed out there before a final vote at a later date, but there were some impactful votes, especially around how council wanted to try to decrease a proposed property tax increase of 1.5 cents.


Budget Cuts

Tariq Bokhari started the meeting by presenting a proposal for cutting the proposed 1.5-cent property tax to .9 cents. The plan would rescind all proposed increases in bonds, including an increase in the housing bond allocation from $50 million to $100 million, as well as any increase in capital improvement project (CIP) funding. He then wanted to rescind the increase in arts funding by $7 million from $11 million back to $4 million.

Victoria Watlington also proposed her own cuts, with which she collaborated with Bokhari, that could bring down the proposed property tax increase by a smaller amount. 

Bokhari said cutting the property tax increase would send a message to the North Carolina General Assembly in lobbying to place a sales tax increase on the ballot at a later date, which the city has wanted to do to fund its Transformative Mobility Network.

Malcolm Graham said the city should worry about the needs of its residents rather than what state lawmakers may or may not think about their efforts to make cuts to a proposed tax hike.

With Marjorie Molina not yet in attendance, Bokhari’s motion for cuts to the bonds and CIP funds failed in a 10-1 vote, as did the motion to cut arts funding.

Watlington then presented the more complex aspects of her proposal. Part A included cuts to CIP funding: reducing spending in Strategic Investment Areas from $55 million to $30 million, Vision Zero funding from $20 million to $10 million, Corridors of Opportunity funding from $25 million to $20 million, and eliminate $5 million in Center City transportation improvements. 

Total cuts to CIP funding would be $75 million, which would bring the proposed tax hike down by .14 cents. 

The first part of Watlington’s plan failed in a 5-5 vote, with Mayor Lyles casting the tiebreaking No vote. 

Watlington’s next proposal was to investigate the potential for using the Hospitality & Tourism Fund for the $7 million proposed increase in arts funding rather than taking it from the general fund.

Ed Driggs said he was reluctant to take such an action without talking to the CRVA, NCGA, and any number of other organizations. He thinks the conversations should have happened in previous workshops and that the budget cut proposals went beyond the scope of a straw vote meeting.

“The plan has been made around the arts, the restructuring that we’ve done is important to our arts ecosystem. I personally would like to lean into the arts and continue the investment that we have,” said Dante Anderson.

In response to council members who stated their concerns about how the budget cut conversations should have happened earlier under different circumstances, Watlington said that as the governing body, Charlotte City Council should set the timeline and it would be irresponsible to feel like they have to push the budget through in a hurry.

Renee Johnson said that if the city can potentially spend hundreds of millions of dollars on improving sports stadiums using the Hospitality Fund, council should at least have the right to investigate whether any of that money can be used to fund the arts.

Driggs and Graham emphasized that the hospitality industry should have a say in how the Hospitality Fund is spent, as they are the reason it exists. Reps from that industry have played a large role in the Spectrum renovations, etc., and haven’t shown interest in this proposal, they insisted. 

With Molina in attendance at that point, the motion to investigate taking funding for arts from the Hospitality Fund passed in a 6-5 vote. That does not include any tangible cut or action other than to direct staff to research any potential action.

The next part of Watlington’s proposal involved cutting a number of hires that the city manager’s office had hoped to make in the coming year, including positions such as a real estate consultant for the city attorney’s office and 10 other positions. 

The proposed motion would cut the budget by $1.1 million by holding off on those hires. Watlington explained that it didn’t necessarily mean the city manager would not be able to make any of the hires named on her list, but that cutting those specific hires was how Watlington and Bokhari got to the $1.1 million number while collaborating on this proposal.

City manager Marcus Jones said he could work to reach that goal. The motion passed 10-1.

The next part of Watlington’s proposal is to cut the proposed increase in the merit pool for salaried city employees from 4% to 3%. 

Ajmera asked Jones if he could also find a way to cut that $900K in a flexible way without it affecting the salary of city employees. Jones responded that he was comfortable with the previous motion because in a worst-case scenario he just wouldn’t make the listed hires, but to do what Ajmera was asking would start to “cause pain.”

“I think our talented city employees are underpaid and if they were to leave and go to the private sector they would be paid at a much different rate,” said James ‘Smuggie’ Mitchell. “I’mma stay true … I will not be supporting this motion.”

James 'Smuggie' Mitchell' applauds during a ceremony in the city council chambers
City council representative James Mitchell. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Renee Johnson reminded those in the room that nobody was proposing a cut to city employees’ salaries, only to tell city employees that they are receiving a 3% increase rather than 4%.

Driggs said it was unfortunate that the 4% increase was announced publicly and council then discussed slashing it publicly. “That’s a bad look.” He said a conversation like that should have taken place with contextual data including comparisons to other cities, to the private sector, etc. That motion failed 7-4. 

Before moving on, Dimple Ajmera asked to revisit option A, Watlington’s proposed cuts to CIP funding, but without the cut to Vision Zero spending. There was some confusion as to whether that was possible, as the original motion already had failed, but the city attorney gave the green light. 

“What about the children walking on the sidewalk that you were concerned about?” asked Malcolm Graham, referencing Ajmera’s comments during the first discussion of the same cuts before that vote failed in a tiebreaker.

Marjorie Molina, who was not present for the first vote, seemed in disbelief at the proposed cuts. She singled out the proposed cuts to Corridors of Opportunity as a subject of her consternation. “Whose corridor will be affected? The people I support [in east Charlotte] are already pissed. If this gets approved they might set up outside … I won’t support it. This makes no sense.”

Council approves the cuts in a 6-5 vote. Based on the two approved changes, the proposed tax increase will go from 1.5 cents to 1.36 cents. 


Budget Adjustments

Council discussed a potential $1 million contribution to add to a $29-million pot that would help build workforce housing for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers. Some members brought up the fact that many city workers can’t afford to live in Charlotte and should be looked after first.

Dante Anderson said those workers are the reason the contribution would be a great investment as a way to “pressure test” a model that could in the future be used to build housing for Charlotte Water and Waste Management workers. “CMS is so important to the economic ecosystem of Charlotte.”

Tariq Bokhari said that, as critical as he has been of the city’s approach to housing in recent years, “I think this is pretty much as much of a no-brainer as we can get.”

That allocation was sent to the Housing and Safety Committee to discuss at its June 3 meeting and, if all questions raised by council are answered, added to the proposed budget before council’s final vote on June 10.

Council plans to allocate $100,000 in partial funding to each of the nonprofit and workforce development organizations that were set to receive money in the new budget or recommended to be added to the list in the recent adjustments meeting while staff and committees work out criteria for which organizations will receive their full requested funding.

With little discussion, council approved two requests for police spending: $150,000 to put active-shooter medical kits in every CMPD vehicle and $97,500 to purchase portable ballistic shields. Both requests were inspired by the April 29 mass shooting of law enforcement officers in east Charlotte

Tariq Bokhari withdrew his request for $500,000 to supply all patrol officers on the force with external carrier vests, stating that he reached an impasse with Chief Johnny Jennings, who doesn’t like the way they look. Bokhari said he remains motivated to make it happen.

Anderson pointed out that 90-95% of the line items that were set to be voted on during the meeting were being sent back to committee for discussion, which defeats the purpose of the straw vote meeting, as they won’t each then come before the full council for an in-depth discussion. “I have a desire for us to have a broader council discussion around the budget.”

Council voted 7-4 to set aside $30 million in future city facility capacity funding for the construction of a new Animal Care & Control facility.

Before a vote on increasing bicycling infrastructure funding from $8 million to $10 million, 

Marjorie Molina pointed out that it would have to come from CIP funding, which had already been cut by $65 million earlier in the meeting, with Ajmera having made both motions.

Ajmera withdrew her motion for bicycle infrastructure funding and it was sent to committee.

Council committees will meet during the day on Monday, June 3, with a wrap-up discussion amongst council that evening, and council is expected to vote on the final budget on June 10. 


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