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Republican addition could bring board bipartisanship

Lisbeth Stockman leaves Independence Regional Library during early voting in Charlotte Oct. 27. Photo by Jim McGuire

Despite the red wave that swept the House of Representatives across the country Tuesday, the Democrats on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners were able to hang on to their majority, losing only one seat.

Although all six seats held by Democrats on the Board of Commissioners were challenged by Republicans — the three incumbent Republicans ran unopposed — the only one unseated was At-large Commissioner Dan Murrey. Former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, a Republican, picked up Murrey’s spot.

To some conservatives, the small gain is not enough to upset the status quo or create any real changes in policymaking from the commissioners.

“I was hoping we’d wake up to a different result than what we got,” said Matthew Ridenhour, president of the Charlotte Tea Party.

But Eric Heberlig, associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said that since the Democrats’ majority narrowed to five seats to the Republicans’ four, the squeeze may lead to some changes.

“I think the key issue facing the County Commission is going to be spending. The second will be closer oversight of county departments,” Heberlig said. “That would be the case regardless of what the membership was, but having one more Republican increases the pressure on the Democrats to address those issues.”

Harold Cogdell and Jennifer Roberts, both Democrats, hung on to their at-large seats, as did Democrats Vilma Leake in District 2, George Dunlap in District 3 and Dumont Clarke in District 4. Republicans Karen Bentley in District 1, Neil Cooksey in District 5 and Bill James in District 6 were all unopposed.

County budget cuts and spending reductions are still going to be issues at the fore of the board’s conversations over the next two years — as they would have been no matter which party was in control.

It will be interesting, Heberlig said, to see the end cuts. Typically, Democrats are more hesitant to make cuts to social services and programs than Republicans are. But the county does not have as much flexibility, because those services are mandated by the state.

The biggest potential for cuts are the capital budgets for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College, which get the biggest chunk of county money each year — $313.4 million for CMS and $24.5 million for CPCC in fiscal 2010.

But all the candidates, including Pendergraph, named education as a priority on the campaign trail, making it unclear how much they would be willing to cut.

The question of property taxes is another that remains unclear. On the campaign trail, the Democrats skirted the question of whether or not they would raise taxes in 2011, following the county’s property revaluation. Usually, they answered by saying there was not a clear enough picture of the budget situation, and they criticized their opponents for taking an ideological stance. Republicans, on the other hand, presented tax cuts as a solution to stimulate the economy.

Pendergraph said his top priority, now that he’s elected, is to hold the line on the tax rate, something he expects to butt heads with the Democrats over because it would mean further spending cuts.

“Families, when they get in a tight position, they eat more bologna than steak,” Pendergraph said, “and I think the commissioners are going to have to do that.”

In a way, the Republicans have the advantage when it comes to potential tax hikes, said John Szmer, assistant professor of political science at UNCC. To balance the budget but still provide all the services mandated by the state, there is the possibility that the tax rate will have to be raised — a scenario that, ironically, is more likely now that there are more Republicans in Congress, Szmer said.

“It’s less likely that there’s going to be the equivalent of another stimulus coming down, so a lot of that funding is going to dry up,” he said. “It puts the commission, as a whole, potentially in a situation where they have to raise taxes, but the Republicans can still vote against it and let the Democrats take the heat.”

Cogdell says most of the decisions that will be made by the new board will be bipartisan ones, in part because the tight budget situation leaves little room for partisan issues.

“It’s about making data-driven, pragmatic decisions, and right now it’s about figuring out how to do more with less,” Cogdell said. “The issues of functional consolidation, greater efficiency, or reduction or elimination of duplication generally aren’t partisan issues.”

To save money, Roberts and Cogdell suggested that county and city departments could work together or be consolidated. Roberts suggests that the Charlotte Area Transit System, run by the city, could provide busing for CMS students. Cogdell champions more public-private partnerships to maintain services that the county has usually provided.

The candidates’ desire for smaller government is a unifying one that goes beyond party lines, said Mark Kelso, political science professor at Queens University. Roberts said she expects to see Republican support for such measures and that it’s very possible that Mecklenburg County government will get smaller.

But some more polarizing issues may also continue to come up.

Immigration reform within the county is one issue that Kelso expects to surface again now that the Republicans have a stronger voice. In October, James, a conservative Republican who represents District 6, proposed that the county contact the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to determine what could be done about illegal immigrants identified through the county’s social services department when seeking assistance for their American-born children.

The Democrats on the board voted the proposal down, condemning his comment that the illegal immigrants in the county could be “Osama wannabes.” But Pendergraph — a proponent of immigration reform who started the 287(g) program, which deputizes local police officials to enforce federal immigration law, in Mecklenburg County during his time as sheriff — defended James.

Having Pendergraph on the board increases the likelihood that the question will come back up. But Szmer said there’s no consensus within the Republican Party as to the best way to handle the immigration problem.

“I think there will definitely be discussion, because it’s something Pendergraph used to buoy his campaign,” Szmer said. “But it’s unlikely that it will go anywhere.”

Caitlin Coakley can be reached at [email protected]

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