While property taxes rose by double digits over the last three years, the Mecklenburg County Commission blew over $1 million to produce and promote a sitcom-style show called The Mecklenburgers.
And here's the kicker. No one is watching it, according to an investigative piece last week by WCNC's Stuart Watson. Watson reported that the county spent wads of money on radio and television ads to promote it, a private production company to produce it, a media buyer to place it, and the private television company, WAXN-TV, to air it. Despite all of this, according to the Nielsen ratings, in two of the last three ratings periods the number of Mecklenburg County residents who watched The Mecklenburgers was zero, WCNC reported.
Watson says it would have been cheaper, and more effective, if the county had simply made a DVD of the show and mailed it to every county taxpayer.
The Mecklenburgers is supposed to be a feel-good cross between a sitcom and a public affairs show, and it comes complete with its own cheesy Mecklenburgers theme song. The goal of the show is supposedly to make learning about county government entertaining. Instead, it is making learning about county spending painful for Mecklenburg County taxpayers who work to pay for it.
The show's cast is made up of local celebrities, like radio legend Robert D. Raiford, former WSOC-TV anchor Suzanne Stephens and others. The actors are paid $525 a day, Watson reported, and this year alone, the county blew $421,000 on just 10 episodes, with $23,000 in cost overruns.
Incredibly, when Watson presented this information to Mecklenburg County Commission Chairperson Jennifer Roberts, she defended the show.
"To hold people's attention about issues that really do affect people's lives, you have to put a little entertainment value in it," Roberts said.
Roberts also praised the 18 TV and production awards the show has won as a sign that the show's producers must be "doing something right."
Two years ago, when county commissioners raised our taxes 10.6 percent, they claimed as usual that they were broke, that their budget was cut to the bone, that they had no other choice but jack up your tax bill. They said the tax hike was for the children whose education they pay for. What a joke.
The reality is that county leaders like Roberts roll over and play broke when they see the potential for a tax hike in much the same way some animals roll over and play dead. It's all highly convincing until you give the animal a good kick. Problem is, no one ever does.
Ironically, the same day Roberts was defending the irreplaceable value of The Mecklenburgers on WCNC, she was quoted in The Charlotte Observer actually fretting over how the elderly would manage to pay their taxes.
As the WCNC interview made clear, Roberts could apparently give a rip if elderly people on fixed incomes have to give another pint of blood or eat another can of dog food to pay for a dozen more episodes of The Mecklenburgers.
But in the Observer article, Roberts described the new land transfer tax that the county desperately needs, which will cost you 1 percent of your home's value when you sell it (that's $1,500 extra on a $150,000 house), as a "relief" to seniors who have been in their homes for years. Supposedly that will shift the property tax burden onto others when they sell their homes. And if seniors struggling to retire are depending on equity in their home to buy a smaller condo or need it to pay for a nursing home? Well, screw the seniors. It was never really about them, anyway. What's important here is The Mecklenburgers.
When they raised taxes by another 2 percent in June, members of the oh-so-broke county commission claimed they had no choice. The tax increase, they explained, was desperately needed to pay for "growth" and spiraling school expenses.
But the same week the commission raised taxes, it gave $50,000 to a man in Spandex. Yes, you read that right. The man calls himself AeroboCop, and he will supposedly spend your money to teach fat kids aerobics or something. The list of pork in the county budget is too long to recount in a space this small, but it included $100,000 for the public television station WTVI to make a documentary about the signing of the Mecklenburg County Declaration of Independence, $62,500 for the NEXTEL NASCAR Allstar Event and $43,000 to the Catawba Valley Scottish Society to hold its annual festival.
The reality is that Mecklenburg County isn't broke at all. The spending habits of its commissioners are just very expensive to maintain.
Check out Tara Servatius' blog at www.taraservatius.com.