Charlotte council approves domestic partner benefits, scraps capital plan

Capital Improvement Plan called for tax increases supporting neighborhood, road, infrastructure improvements

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: June 26, 2012 in Featured Stories, News

Budget summary

See a full summary of Charlotte’s operating budget items, including employee compensation changes and other spending plans, at the end of this story.

Upcoming coverage

Stay tuned to goqnotes.com and be sure to pick up the special July 21 “InFocus: Charlotte” print edition for an in-depth feature exploring the behind-the-scenes advocacy work by a variety of community organizations and leaders that helped push domestic partner benefits to the Charlotte City Council.

CHARLOTTE — After prolonged discussion and a deadlocked debate, council members passed the 2013 fiscal year operating budget at their meeting last night. The council’s budget debate included two significant decisions — the extension of domestic partner benefits to same-sex partners of LGBT city employees and the scrapping the city’s hotly-contested Capital Improvement Plan that would have invested nearly $1 billion into long-neglected areas of the city over the next decade.

The budget passed last night gives City Manager Curt Walton the authority to develop and implement a benefits plan for same-sex partners of city employees. The partner benefits would mirror those currently offered to spouses and dependents of employees and include such items as medical and dental insurance and funeral and sick leave.

North Carolina voters recently approved a state constitutional amendment defining opposite-sex marriage as the “only domestic legal union” recognized in the state. Despite the overwhelming 61-39 percent vote, Walton and city council members pushed forward with their plan to extend benefits to LGBT employees and their families.

Mecklenburg County already offers similar benefits. No changes to the county plan have been authorized, though anti-gay Republican Commissioner Bill James had called for benefits to be stopped just one day after the May 8 amendment vote.

It’s not immediately clear when city employees can begin to enroll in a city-sponsored domestic partner plan, which could, like the county’s, face legal questions or challenges from those who supported the discriminatory constitutional amendment in May.

The Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC) had long worked to see the domestic partner plan implemented. The group has been instrumental in pushing through other LGBT-inclusive changes on the city and county level, including protections for workers against discrimination based on sexual orientation and the county commission’s adoption of domestic partner benefits in 2009.

MeckPAC spoke out in favor of the proposed domestic partner plan at the council’s May 29 meeting, in which several LGBT and straight ally city, police and fire employees asked council to approve it. In addition to MeckPAC, the partner plan also garnered support from the Charlotte Fire Fighters Association, a local affiliate of the AFL-CIO International Fire Fighters Association.

Phil Hargett, a former MeckPAC chair and current steering committee member, was encouraged by the news of council’s decision on Monday night.

“The city’s approval of domestic partner benefits is historic and a welcome move,” Hargett told qnotes. “Our group has advocated for this plan for many years. We applaud the City of Charlotte for finally joining the hundreds of other public and private employers across the country in offering such benefits that create a fair and equitable workplace.”

Several local governments across the state already offer domestic partner benefits, including Asheville, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham and Greensboro. In addition to Mecklenburg County, Durham and Orange Counties also offer similar plans.

MeckPAC and other groups are still working toward city and county employment protections on the basis of gender identity.

Capital plan set aside

In addition to the domestic partner plan decision, council also made a final call on a weeks-long debate over the proposed Capital Improvement Plan.

City Manager Walton’s original plan called for spending $926 million over the next decade on neighborhood improvement projects, a streetcar line extension and improvements to sidewalks, roads, bridges, public buildings and other infrastructure.

The plan would have necessitated an 8 percent property tax increase resulting in an additional 3.6 cents on every $100 of taxable property. Republicans Warren Cooksey and Andy Dulin had been opposed to the tax increase from the outset, though Cooksey later said he’d support an increase up to 2.44 cents.

But, it was a stunning 6-5 vote on June 11 against the original plan that sent council discussions into a frenzy.

Two groups of council members proposed competing alternatives. One plan offered by Democrats John Autry, David Howard, Patsy Kinsey, James Mitchell and LaWana Mayfield would have have included an increase of 3.16 cents on every $100 of taxable property and reduced spending by $129 million to a total of $797.4 million. The five council members were unable to find a sixth vote for their plan, which included the controversial streetcar line extension from Uptown to Beatties Ford Rd. and Johnson C. Smith University.

The second plan, spearheaded by Democrat Michael Barnes, reduced the tax increase to just 2.44 cents and spending to $657 million. Barnes, who has been opposed to the streetcar, did not include that project in his proposal.

The second plan passed the council 6-5 on Monday afternoon, but Mayor Anthony Foxx later vetoed it saying that it did not do enough to help the city.

Barnes was unable to find a seventh vote to override Foxx’s veto, leading Howard to propose scrapping the plan this year and suggesting that the city keep their current tax rate and wait until a majority-backed spending plan could be developed.

Barnes chided Howard for his proposal. “You go from $700 million to zero?” Barnes asked.

Howard’s motion to table capital improvement talks passed with a 7-4 veto-proof majority, with Republicans Cooksey and Dulin supporting the motion.

“This is what I wanted all along,” Cooksey said after the vote.

After the meeting, Foxx said not all was lost. “It’s incredibly disappointing not to have a capital program, but it’s better to get the right one for this community and one that we can feel good about,” he said.

It’s unclear if or when the council will take up similar discussions on neighborhood improvements again.

City staff and several council members had stressed the importance of the plan, which would have poured investment into areas of the city long-neglected by local government. The aim, backers said, was to create the proper infrastructure to bolster economic development and the future tax base in areas of the city that have seen decline. Areas of the well-developed and stable South Charlotte are increasingly carrying the largest share of the city’s tax burden, a predicament that city officials said is unsustainable.

Steve Harrison of The Charlotte Observer contributed. Read his report at charlotteobserver.com. qnotes is a member of The Observer‘s Charlotte News Alliance.

City of Charlotte FY2013 Operating Budget

The passage of the operating budget includes:

  • $500,000 for four crime analysts and three telecommunicators for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department
  • $1.1 million to offset increased fuel costs
  • $1.4 million increase for maintenance and repair of City vehicles and equipment

CATS, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department and Storm Water
The approved operating budget also included increases in rates and charges to fund infrastructure expansions that accommodate growing service demands. The average monthly water/sewer bill will increase $3.30 going from $56.23 to $59.53, and the average monthly storm water fees will rise 42¢ from $7.06 to $7.48. Also, the Charlotte Area Transit System’s base fare will increase 25¢ to support public transit program efforts.

Employee Compensation and Benefits Summary
Compensation and benefit changes for employees and retirees include the following:

Compensation

  • A redesign of the Public Safety Pay Plan and funding for merit steps of 2.5% or 5% for those below the maximum pay step and a 1.5% market adjustment
  • Funding for a 3% merit budget for the Broadbanding Pay Plan

Benefits

  • Modify the medical plan designs to ensure the City’s plans continue to contain costs, promote in-network utilization and remain competitive with market practices
  • Increase of 2% in City’s cost
  • Increase of 2% for medical premiums in the higher “plus” medical plan for City employees
  • No increase in medical premiums for employees choosing the base medical plan
  • Extension of benefits to same sex domestic partners
  • Evaluation of offering a network based dental plan with a high and low dental option
  • Amendment to the Shared Sick Leave policy to allow use of shared sick leave for a catastrophic Workers’ Compensation covered illness or injury
  • For retiree only medical coverage, an increase in the retiree share from 37.5% to 42.5% of the premium. For retiree and dependent coverage, an increase in the retiree share from 47.5% to 50% of the premium.
  • Non Medicare retirees may experience an increase of $22.09 per month to $59.20 per month depending on the plan and level of coverage. Non-Medicare retirees changing from the Plus to the Basic plan may experience a premium decrease depending on the coverage selected. Rebidding the Medicare-eligible retiree plan, and upon completion of this process, the City will determine if plan and vendor changes are required.

– Compiled from release.