Mecklenburg County commissioners held their annual budget retreat Jan. 25-27, and we tuned in. How governments budget and spend available funds reflects their values and determines their ability to address existing problems. For this reason, it’s important to pay attention to the budget and ensure it reflects what residents want.
The Board of Commissioners heard from staff about several county-funded programs across sectors, including education, health care and workforce development. We were particularly interested in conversations about how Mecklenburg County plans to improve equity, affordable housing, the environment and parks and greenways through the budget process.
Here are some highlights and our take on the sessions that addressed these issues. Quick note: We wrote a separate analysis of the commission's discussion about the Capital Improvement Plan. You can read that here.
Mecklenburg County Equity Action Plan
We’re encouraged that county leaders have empowered an ad hoc committee to ensure that community voices are heard as the plan’s implementation strategy is created and that they’re staffing up the Office of Equity and Inclusion to execute the important work of implementing the Action Plan.
RECAP: Commissioners received an update on the county’s Equity Action Plan, including the ongoing work of the Equity Investments ad hoc committee. Equity and Inclusion Director LaShaun Carter shared an update from the department.
Carter reminded the board about the County Equity Vision, which states that all people in Mecklenburg County will have an equitable opportunity to thrive in their workplaces and the community. Carter’s department is tasked with implementing the Equity Action Plan, a process that includes building off the original plan and working with other departments to formalize a consistent go-forward model. This includes fostering relationships for community feedback.
Carter then touched on the equity needs assessment, which accounts for perspectives on county programs, power dynamics, policies, people and cultural engagement, and Department Equity Action Teams (DEATs), which have a mission to form department-specific approaches to advancing equity. The teams’ work is taking place in phases, the last of which will culminate in spring 2023, when models are put into practice.
Finally, Carter introduced the Mecklenburg County Equity Investments ad hoc committee, which will lead the charge gathering community input on the equity investment strategy. This committee empowers the community to provide feedback regarding where investments should be made and researches national best practices to inform the county’s investment decisions.
The Office of Equity and Inclusion is on track to be fully staffed in the coming months.
Following the presentation, commissioners were invited to ask questions. Commissioner Elaine Powell requested an update on some of the challenges the Equity Action Plan has faced so far, and Carter noted that some DEATs were doing things that diverged from what exists in the strategic plan. He said their department has worked to solve this discrepancy by making sure there’s a tighter connection between what subgroups are doing and what departments are doing to address strategic priorities.
Environmental Leadership Action Plan
We’re glad to see the county investing in clean energy, sustainable buildings, and electric vehicles for their fleets. We eagerly anticipate the completion of the Environmental Justice Action Plan, a topic we brought to the public this past September via a webinar (watch here). With less than half of the open land acquisiton positions filled, the county is currently limited by how quickly they can pursue and finalize these often complicated real estate transactions that are so essential to ensuring that our parks and greenways network is built without gaps. We’re sending a virtual high-five to county leaders for working with city staff to address parts of the Unified Development Ordinance that involve both city and county operations like recycling and space for urban parks.
RECAP: Commissioners received an update on the Environmental Leadership Action Plan delivered by Sustainability and Resiliency Manager Erin Stanforth.
Stanforth provided an overview on the county’s facilities and fleets, land acquisition, invasive species removal, partnerships and the Environmental Justice study FY2022 progress.
Highlights of these updates included a report on the county’s deep energy retrofit master plan, solar master plan and onsite solar design and installation. Stanforth also touched on the county’s current and planned electric vehicle fleet and electrical vehicle charging stations.
Of particular interest to us was her update on land acquisition. We and our Growing our Greenways partners have extensively advocated for accelerated land acquisition so that Mecklenburg County’s greenway network can be built on time as laid out in the Greenway Master Plan. One hundred thirty-three acres have been acquired for future greenway segments, parks, nature preserves, recreation centers, and other facilities. 197 acres are approved and pending, and offers have been submitted or are under negotiation for 380 acres.
Importantly, this department has created workgroups to address outstanding decisions around the city of Charlotte’s Unified Development Ordinance, including recycling needs and determining how to implement a fee-in-lieu for parkland dedication.
Finally, Stanforth gave a brief update on the Environmental Justice Survey. The county has hired a consultant to assist with collecting data from residents, administered a survey and conducted 13 community engagement surveys. It is in the process of synthesizing data to inform an official Environmental Justice Action Plan that will be drafted and published in 2023.
Following the update, there was considerable discussion about putting resources toward more aggressive invasive species removal in order to protect natural native habitats. The question was also raised about staff for land acquisition. There are seven positions in the real estate division, including the director. Currently, three of those positions are filled, three are in recruitment and one is on hold. This is of particular interest as we advocate for accelerated acquisition of land for greenways while it is still available.
Living in Mecklenburg County has become much more expensive over the past decade. Many residents have been displaced from their homes and many others are housing insecure. As county leaders continue to fund the creation and preservation of affordable housing for people with low to moderate incomes, we encourage them to also prioritize the transportation needs of residents. For most households, transportation is the second highest expense after housing. About 30% of residents don’t drive, so it’s important to plan housing that meets the needs of all people. Owning a car should be an option rather than a necessity. We advocate not only for affordable housing but also for affordable living.
RECAP: The board received an update on Mecklenburg County’s affordable housing programs from Program Manager LaShonda Hart.
Hart laid out the details of several affordable housing initiatives, most of which began in FY20 through partnerships with Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and Legal Aid of North Carolina. Current affordable housing efforts consist of five main categories:
- Eviction prevention and diversion assistance
- Aging in place
- Rental subsidy programs
- Neighborhood redevelopment and revitalization
- New housing developments
Much of the conversation focused on rental subsidy programs. Hart covered 15 programs, including Critical Home Repair, MeckHome, Keeping Families Together and Housing 4 Good. From FY20 to FY23, $37.2 million in funding was allocated for these programs. As of this presentation, $14.4 million is still available.
Hart also touched on two neighborhood redevelopment projects near Pottstown and Smithville, which are located in Huntersville and Cornelius, respectively. Mecklenburg County has recently purchased land near Pottstown from a developer, and county employees are now working to capture neighborhood perspectives and stakeholder ideas for what development should take place on this land.
Smithville received $3 million to prevent displacement and gentrification in the town of Cornelius. The goal is to purchase 20 properties to build affordable housing. So far, Smithville has closed and received the title to three of the 20 targeted properties. The county has hired four staff members and engaged a team of professionals to ensure that residents’ concerns are heard and addressed through this process.
Hart recapped additional affordable housing initiatives that are underway using federal American Rescue Plan funding. Thanks to ARPA funding and the rental subsidy fund in FY22, Mecklenburg County has been able to create 541 affordable housing units, 45 affordable home-ownership opportunities and 234 units that will be preserved to make sure rent is affordable.
At the conclusion of the presentation, commissioners were invited to ask questions. Commissioner Arthur Griffin Jr. mentioned that all seven mayors in the county have indicated that housing is a priority, and Commissioners Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, Laura Meier and Commission Chair George Dunlap encouraged ramping up this work and potentially hiring additional staff.
County commissioners' priorities and initiatives
A summary of the board’s priorities and initiatives was presented by Budget Director Adrian Cox.
Cox recapped how county dollars were spent in FY23 as they fit into four areas: educational attainment gaps, investment, COVID-19 priority areas and COVID recovery areas.
A chart showing new county budget priorities in FY23 indicated that an additional $54.2 million (66%) was allocated for environmental leadership, easily ranking first for new funding. Affordable housing was listed as the second highest funded sector at $13.8 million (17%).
Cox summarized the three complementary frameworks that recap the county’s investments, highlighting how racial disparities are embedded throughout the three frameworks.
In total, the county’s FY23 budget closed at $1.4 billion. We are pleased to see that $224 million of this was used for parks and environment, with $54 million set aside for the Environmental Leadership Action Plan and $7 million to advance equity in parks. It is important to note that most of the parks and environment budget was used for land acquisition — a crucial step toward our goal — and the county’s goal — of growing and connecting our greenways. Also central to our goals: Housing and homelessness received $159 million, $14 million of which went to affordable housing.
You can expect to hear more from us as the the fiscal year 2024 budget process continues. The next big date on our radar is March 28, when commissioners will hear from the Park and Recreation Advisory Board. On April 11, there will be a workshop on the Capital Improvement Plan. On April 25, commissioners will get input from the Air Quality Commission and hear updates about public engagement for the budget process. On May 9, commissioners will review the Capital Improvement Plan.
County Manager Dena Diorio will present staff’s recommended budget on May 18, followed by a detailed overview on May 23. Commissioners will conduct straw votes June 1, and will are expected to formally vote on the budget June 6.
Fiscal year 2024 begins July 1. You can see more about the budget-adoption process here.
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