Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio (2019 File Photo: Qcitymetro)
Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio outlines here proposed budget for fiscal 2020 at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, May 21, 2019. (Photo: Qcitymetro)

Roughly 38 percent of Mecklenburg County residents are non-white. Yet when it comes to awarding county contracts, Mecklenburg officials have a “terrible” record doing business with firms owned by women and minorities — at least in some instances.

That was the assessment offered by County Manager Dena Diorio, who attended the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum to outline her proposed $1.9 billion budget for fiscal year 2020.

Tucked into that proposal are funds earmarked to address racial disparities in Mecklenburg County, including disparities that relate to small and minority-owned businesses.

One such program would create a $3.3 million loan pool for companies that qualify under the county’s Minority, Women and Small Business Enterprises (MWSBE) program. Another would fund a study to determine why more county contracts aren’t going to MWSBE companies.

“We get a lot of feedback from the MWSBE community, that they can’t effectively compete for county contracts,” Diorio told the audience. “So this assessment is really going to tell us what we are doing wrong and what the best practices are so that we can expand that.”

One bright spot: Diorio said the county is meeting its “aspirational goal” to award at least 21 percent of all construction contracts to MWSBE firms. But as for all other contracts — mainly those covering goods and services procured by the county — the percentage going to women- and minority-owned firms is slightly more than 3 percent, she said.

“That’s terrible, that’s absolutely terrible,” Diorio said. “…We need to do a better job. Clearly, we are not doing something right.


Help for small and minority-owned business

Under the loan program, the county would make “micro loans” to small businesses that might not qualify for traditional bank loans, which often have minimum loan amounts of $75,000 and $100,000.

“These small businesses don’t need that much money, Diorio said. “They need smaller amounts…just to be able to expand their business to the next level.”

Diorio said terms for the loan program are still being worked out. Meanwhile, the county has hired a vendor to manage the loan program, which Diorio said might be accepting applications by late summer.

In total, the budget would devote $8.1 million to addressing various racial disparities, a proposed increase of $6.3 million.

Also in the proposed budget:

Affordable Housing

The county would spend $22.5 million (an increase of $15.2 million) on programs related to affordable housing.

The budget would set aside $11 million for a rental-subsidy program to assist low-income residents. Diorio said members of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners felt strongly that more county dollars should be directed to address housing, an area typically under the city’s domain.

“The City of Charlotte is very engaged in building new units; that’s really their strong suit,” Diorio said. “But we know that you can’t build your way out of an affordable housing crisis, and we think rental subsidies is a nice way to be able to allow other people to be able to access affordable housing more quickly than trying to obtain a new unit.”

An additional $500,000 would be earmarked for Mecklenburg County Legal Aid to work with low-income tenants in danger of being evicted. A separate fund would be earmarked to help immigrants avoid eviction.

Mental Health

A total of $44.4 million (a $6.8 million increase) would go to fund various mental health programs. The biggest portion of that increase — $5.7 million – is slated for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Diorio said the increase would pay for additional support staff — 27 social workers, 10 counselors, 10 psychologists and eight coordinators in training.

An additional $400,000 is earmarked for “therapeutic foster care placements,” and two full-time social workers would be hired to screen children assigned to foster care who may have experienced “adverse childhood experiences.”

“This is really important because, if we can recognize those adverse childhood experiences when those children are young and do interventions when they are young, then we can really help offset any of the lingering issues that can come with those experiences,” Diorio said. “The ability to do that early is really important.”

Public Schools

Roughly a third of the county’s proposed budget — $534 million – would go to support Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. That would represent an increase of $50 million over the current year.

Much of that increase would go to boost teachers’ pay. Some would be used to increase the minimum wage for CMS workers to $13.22 an hour from the current $11. The school district’s goal, Diorio said, is to increase the minimum to $15 an hour, but over a phased-in approach.

County Employees

County workers would get a 5.5 percent pay raise as part of a larger effort to evaluate and adjust the county’s pay structure. Wages for county employees, Diorio said, are “significantly below market.”

“It’s created a number of issues for us,” she said. “We can’t hire people; we can’t pay people of quality to come work for the county, and we’re having a very difficult time retaining our talent… We’re at a critical point where we need to do something about that.”

Diorio said the county last adjusted its pay structure about 10 years ago.

The budget also would set aside $2.3 million to provide a one-time bonus for employees of the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office, the first step in a more comprehensive look at salaries within the department. Diorio said the bonuses are necessary to retain Sheriff’s Office employees ahead of next summer’s Republican National Convention.

Arts & Culture

The county’s Culture Blocks program would get $950,000 in funding, up from $800,000 in the current budget. Managed by the Arts & Science Council, Culture Blocks takes arts and cultural experiences into neighborhoods away from the center city.

ASC President Robert Bush said the Culture Blocks program is responsive to the people it serves.

“The program has continued to grow each year since its inception, thanks to support from Mecklenburg County government,” he said, “and we are hopeful increased funding will allow us to continue building bridges that connect residents through arts and culture.”

Who pays for this new spending?

The budget proposed by Diorio amounts to a 9.1 percent increase over the current fiscal year. The higher spending levels would be paid for by higher property taxes assessed against homeowners and businesses.

Diorio’s plan would set the county’s tax rate at 61.69 cents per $100 of assessed value – 25 percent lower than the current rate but about 2 cents higher than the revenue neutral rate, or the rate needed for the county to bring in the same amount of money as the last budget.

Despite having a lower rate, many Mecklenburg homeowners and businesses would pay more in taxes next year because of a steep climb in property values.

According to the Charlotte Observer, about 65 percent homes and more than 70 percent of commercial properties would be assessed higher taxes under the proposal.

County Commissioners will begin deliberating next week and have scheduled a June 4 vote to approve a budget.

Founder and publisher of Qcitymetro, Glenn has worked at newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and The Charlotte Observer.