Jennifer Roberts, Chairman of the Mecklenburg
Board of County Commissioners, delivered the "State of the County" address on Friday, March 9.
Chairman Roberts addressed recent accomplishments by Mecklenburg County government and areas where improvement is needed. Mecklenburg County's
2006 Performance Report shows that about 45 percent of the Board's long-term goals received "green lights," indicating either the results have been achieved or are on target for being achieved. Fifty-seven percent received red or yellow lights with improved performance.
The address can be seen at various times on the Government Channel (Time-Warner cable channel 16) and is available for viewing online
Mecklenburg County: State of the County Address 2007
Good morning, and welcome to the state of the county address for Mecklenburg, North Carolina. I am Jennifer Roberts, Chairman of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.
I am pleased to report that the state of our county is strong.
We are one of the fastest growing areas of the country and are rated one of America's most livable regions. We are the country's second largest banking center, and our economy is booming.
This past year, 12,087 new jobs were created, and we had over $16 billion in annual retail sales. Our unemployment rate of 4.3% is below the state and national averages. We are 6th in the country for Fortune 500 companies, with nine such companies headquartered here. We opened five new schools this past year, extended our greenway to 33 developed and 147 undeveloped miles, and completed or expanded 13 new county parks and recreation centers.
Our greatest opportunity, and a sign of our success as a community, is also our greatest challenge: explosive growth. We had over 38,000 new residents move into our county over the past year, and this growth has spilled into our neighboring counties as well. Many of the critical issues facing this county today relate to this growth, we read about them every day in the headlines. These include:
· over-crowded schools
· a growing number of working poor
· a back-logged court system
· a deteriorating environment
The best way for us to meet these challenges will be through informed dialogue and even stronger partnerships among the public, government, business, and the non-profit sectors. These challenges cannot be met by any one group or entity, and I hope to build on an atmosphere of collaboration so that we can work together to meet the needs of all segments of our population.
The need for working together is the greatest in our educational system and our public schools. County Manager Harry Jones and Superintendent Peter Gorman have signed an unprecedented working agreement to increase responsiveness, leverage resources, and streamline information sharing through joint decision making. Improved communications will lead to greater efficiency as we work together on the biggest challenges facing our schools: overcrowding and student achievement.
With the School Board and Superintendent's lead, we are working to build and renovate more schools than ever. We need to create a school bond proposal with broad community support that provides our school system with the tools it needs. We must provide all our students with healthy learning environments that engage and challenge them to achieve. Mecklenburg County expects 50,000 new students in the next 10 years. We had 5,100 new students this year. We've provided some stopgap measures, but now we must do what is right for this community or we will loose our best teachers and short-change the future of our community.
We must put this community first in the coming school bond and provide concrete relief to overcrowding. We should seek out the highest environmental standards, stretch our resources, build partnerships and engage the community. With the help of this community we will create a building program that will reach every district of the county, including suburban, middle ring, and urban schools. With our ongoing financial contribution to the school system's operating budget, we will also support the School Board's initiatives to address student achievement. CMS must have the resources it needs to educate children with extremely diverse learning needs, as we address a federal mandate to leave no child behind. Public education is too important to the future of our region to do anything less.
The County is a strong supporter of public education in many ways. We provide funds not only for CMS but also for pre-school education, Central Piedmont Community College and its workforce development, a strong and vital library system, and many other community partners.
Our library system has won numerous awards over the past year, including a National Service Award presented by First Lady Laura Bush. This award recognizes outstanding and innovative service and programming. The key centerpiece to the system, the Children's Learning Center at Imaginon, continues to draw visitors from across the county and from around the country. Visitors are delighted with its numerous resources, continuous programming, and unique and exciting learning environment in a certified "green" building. The Public Library will continue to be an important community partner as we work toward our goal of improving the literacy rate in our community.
A second area of concern is the increase in poverty in Mecklenburg County and the growth of our working poor. Our county has a great deal of wealth, but our poverty levels exceed national and state averages. A lack of affordable housing, a growing technology gap, a high drop-out rate in our high schools, and the arrival of many un-skilled or recently unemployed workers are all factors putting pressure on our poverty rate. This board has made it a priority to assist our citizens in reaching self sufficiency, by supporting social programs, educational and re-training programs, and increasing economic opportunities for all segments of our population.
We are currently working with the city and with non-profit groups to provide people and families with the tools they need to become self-reliant. We are providing funding for the Status of Seniors Initiative, and continue to implement the strategies laid out in that plan. These programs will enable our seniors--especially our county's veterans, who make up a large percentage of our senior population--to remain healthy and to age in place. We increased our focus on successful programs for substance abuse treatment, and continue to add to our community partners in the area of mental health and substance abuse, putting people on the road to recovery and self-reliance. The County Health Department hosted a comprehensive conference on the study of health disparities, and is working to reduce disparities, increase healthcare access, and improve preventive care for our most vulnerable populations. We are currently focusing on reducing the incidence of HIV/AIDS in our community, as our numbers in that area have grown. We are also working to reduce homelessness, and have supported partnerships that provide more comprehensive counseling and follow up to those who have catastrophic financial or health circumstances, to try to keep people from losing their homes. We need to do even more, for the number of homeless children in our school system—currently almost 2000—should shock this entire community. Just yesterday I visited a middle school that has over 50 homeless children in its classrooms.
A third priority area of concern is public safety. The County-funded jail is overcrowded, and our courts are understaffed. Just two months ago, we opened a new county courthouse that will help provide relief to our overworked court system. The new courthouse building is designed to be more efficient and to improve public, worker, and inmate safety. It has much-needed room for growth, with an ability to add 8 more courtrooms, and features expanded child care facilities for families. Now we must work to provide funds for the additional staff needed to reduce trial wait times and to speed the operation of the system. We received 13 additional assistant district attorneys in the state budget for this current year, and we now look forward to working closely with Raleigh to fund additional DA's and clerical support for these attorneys.
We have commissioned a study of our jail operations and overcrowding, with results due in the next few months, to assess the bottlenecks in the system. Our county Sheriff has implemented a new program with federal collaboration to identify undocumented immigrants who are committing crimes, and to deport them. This activity will be part of a study to determine whether we need a federal immigration court in Charlotte. We are also working with our Area Mental Health department to determine treatment for offenders after they have served their time in an effort to decrease recidivism and thereby relieve overcrowding as well. All of these measures will help our county uphold the rule of law and improve public safety.
A fourth focus area is natural resource management. We continue to remain an EPA non-attainment region, which means we still have unhealthy air quality. We have worked with the business community over the past year in a program called Clean Air Works. We are continuing to add partners to this collaboration, in an attempt to reduce the amount of vehicle emissions and pollution in our region. If we do not make substantial improvements within the next two years, we could lose valuable federal highway funds and have federal mandates imposed for air quality regulation. We also are working with non-profit partners to continue to protect our water supply, through the use of water buffers, greenways, and management techniques that clean our water naturally. Our water resources were challenged this past year with a request by neighboring counties in another water basin to permanently remove millions of gallons a day from our lakes. Part of this request was granted by the State Environmental Management Commission, which resulted in numerous lawsuits. There is an urgent need for Mecklenburg County to lead our region into a constructive, collaborative dialogue over shared resources to avoid similar conflicts in the future.
One success story in our natural resource management is our county-wide Park and Recreation Department. Over this past year, customer satisfaction improved with our Park and Recreation Department and stands at 89 percent. We now have more than 33 finished miles of greenway, and more and more property owners are donating land and easements to keep adding to this network of trails. We also have three large nature preserves that provide important educational programs and management techniques for our land, water, and wildlife. We have invested over $15 million to protect vital buffers around our main drinking water reservoir, Mountain Island Lake, and continue to monitor this resource through a multi-county partnership known as the Mountain Island Lake Water Quality Initiative that seeks to protect our drinking water in the future. We hope to have another water quality bond on the ballot this fall. We are currently working with neighboring counties to expand this initiative to Lake Wylie.
This past fall, we inaugurated the US National Whitewater Center, a public/private/non-profit collaboration that has brought a world-renowned facility to Charlotte. This facility is the main practice area for the US Olympic whitewater team, and members of the Canadian team are frequent visitors as well. This facility provides healthy outdoor programming for teenagers, adults, corporate interests, and competitive teams from around the region and even the country. In other parts of the County, there are several sportsplexes, three major parks, and eight park expansions under development as we strive to keep pace with the increasing number of young athletes in our region.
I have not mentioned every challenge that our county faces. There are many more that are part of the increasingly complex society and community we serve, and there are forces trying to divide the community on any number of issues, instead of working to achieve more for everyone. These are among our most pressing needs, however, and I hope that the attention they receive today will enable the community to help us move forward together in addressing them.
It is our belief as a Board that we can continue to focus our resources, in an even more effective and efficient manner, to improve the state of our county. We cannot do it alone. We hope that the community as a whole will support issues that are dear to them and help us continue to improve the health, education, and welfare of our residents.
How are we going to pay for all these needs for infrastructure, services, and growth? How we will keep our community affordable and still support those services and amenities that keep us one of America's most livable communities?
There are a number of paths we are taking. We are increasing partnerships, and developing innovative and creative structures for financing, for construction, for joint use and joint programming. We will continue to leverage the partnerships we have with businesses and individuals so that we can do more with less.
As our county moves forward, we are seeing an increase in the number of public and private partnerships. These partnerships allow us to invest in the future of our community, while keeping our tax base stable. The Whitewater Center, Imaginon, and now re-development of Second Ward and Brooklyn Village, are all examples of diverse groups and entities working together in our community to provide a better and stronger future for our county and region. We must be diligent in these partnerships to make sure that all sides of the community are heard and that we move forward together in an open, honest, and accountable process. Open and honest government, with careful financial management, can restore trust within our diverse district as well as keep lines of communication open among all participants.
We are focusing a lot of attention on our Uptown right now. The value of that city center is another sign of our success and our challenges. There will no doubt be strain as we work, along with the City of Charlotte, to re-develop Second Ward, re-locate CMS headquarters, build a NASCAR hall of fame, create new cultural facilities with Wachovia, re-configure Spirit Square, complete an urban Third Ward park, and bring AAA baseball back to Uptown. On all of these projects we are working to ensure that the voices of all stakeholders are heard, and that there are equal opportunities for all businesses in our community to participate in the design, construction, and implementation of this shared vision for a vibrant Uptown and a regional resource.
Most important, we must work to sustain a stable and fair tax rate.
For this term, it is my goal to try to avoid property tax increases. I look forward to working with our state delegation and the state legislature as they tackle the sensitive issue of tax reform. Specifically, Mecklenburg County will be seeking ways to provide future tax relief to property owners, who now shoulder too much of the burden. We have made incremental progress here, but the state effort offers the promise that a more stable and fair tax base is in our future. The education lottery has provided some funds, over $9 million so far this year, to assist in school construction and debt re-payment. In the future we may have the option for other revenues, whether it be impact fees, real estate transfer fees, or state bonds to assist in school construction, land purchases for water quality protection, or other equally pressing needs.
Our many achievements as a community are an indication of the strides we are making toward our goals as laid out in our 2015 plan. To track our progress in making the plan a reality, the county has adopted a scorecard system that offers a behind-the-scenes look at how our government is performing.
Our county government continues to earn numerous awards for efficiency and fiscal responsibility and received an overall customer satisfaction rating of 71 percent for all county services. Its reputation for trust and competence helps foster an environment that spurs public and private partnerships and helps to create and sustain our growth. Our AAA bond rating, received from all three major Wall Street rating agencies, has been maintained for many years. It is yet another indication of the strength of our financial management, the vibrancy of our diverse economy, and the promise for our future ability to meet our challenges responsibly and effectively.
Overall, about 45 percent of the county's long-term goals for all departments are performing well and received positive assessments. Of the goals that need improvement, more than sixty percent showed improved performance over the previous year. Many of those areas that received a red light, which means we are not on track to meet our goals for 2015, have been mentioned today. We are putting specific plans in place to improve performance in these areas, while still maintaining our excellent service in those areas that carry a green light. We encourage citizens to view this scorecard by visiting the County website at MECKLENBURGCOUNTYNC.GOV and to give us their input as well.
I would like to thank my colleagues on the Board of County Commissioners for allowing me to serve as chair this year and I thank each of them for caring about this community and making the sacrifice to be in public service.
The nine members of the board, elected November, 2006, include District representatives (in order by the number of their district) Karen Bentley, Norman Mitchell, Valerie Woodard, Dumont Clarke, Dan Bishop, and Bill James; and at large representatives Parks Helms, Dan Ramirez, and myself.
We have discovered in working together that each commissioner has valuable skills and expertise to contribute—together we make a capable team. I look forward to working together with them, building on their expertise and knowledge, and keeping our dialog open and inclusive.
I would also like to recognize county manager Harry Jones and his staff and thank them for their hard work , dedication, and outstanding performance. Mr. Jones is an extremely capable manager with many years of experience, and, while the County Commissioners direct policy, Mr. Jones has the job of putting this policy into action. He manages a budget of over $1.3 billion and a staff of over 5,000 employees, providing services ranging from public health and education to social services and parks and recreation centers. Thank you for your leadership.
As Chair of this Board, I look forward to working with each commissioner and with Mr. Jones as we continue to face the challenges and opportunities presented by our growing and changing community. To the residents of our community, I want to let you know that we need your help and support to do what is best, and to serve this community and keep us on track toward our vision for being a model, diverse community that will continue to be a wonderful place to live, work, and raise a family for years to come.
We can and will do more, together, to build a brighter future for all of our community.