Up Front: November 2009

Data errata

Talk about leading with your chin: On this page last month, I lamented the loss of craftsmanship and commitment to getting it right in much of what passes for journalism these days. No sooner had the magazine begun hitting mailboxes than I got an e-mail from Bill Carroll, a senior public-information specialist with Mecklenburg County:

“In the October issue of Business North Carolina, pages 21-22, there is a graphic that lists the current Mecklenburg County tax rate as $1.30. While the combined Mecklenburg County/City of Charlotte tax rate is currently 1.2973 per $100, the Mecklenburg County property tax rate is currently .8387 per $100 of property value. The graphic states that Mecklenburg County was among 11 counties that raised tax rates this year, which is also incorrect. The last time the property-tax rate was increased in Mecklenburg County was 2007. The graphic also indicates that Mecklenburg has the highest tax rate in the state. According to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, at least six other counties have higher tax rates than Mecklenburg.” He concluded by listing URLs for that information on the NCACC Web site as well as the county’s complete list of tax rates on its site.

In that same column, I had waxed nostalgic about the newsroom where I started out 41 years ago. After reading Carroll’s e-mail, the profanity that rattled the windows of my office would have done my mentors proud. I’m lucky no drawer of my desk harbored a bottle, as so many in that era did: I might have used it to bean somebody before rendering myself senseless with its contents. The irony is — I’m wincing as I write this, remembering the harangue that starting a sentence with such a cliché would warrant — that we screwed up by doing it the old-fashioned way.

Each year for more than a decade, we’ve compiled a list of tax rates and other pertinent information by faxing and e-mailing surveys to key economic-development agencies in each county. What’s surprising is not that somebody at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce sent back the city/county tax rate but that nobody here noticed that. After all, we’re in Mecklenburg County — it’s the tax rate most of us pay. That we hadn’t long ago switched to downloading all 100 tax rates from the Web site is akin to setting type for this magazine by hand — if it was good enough for Johann Gutenberg, it’s good enough for me — and working smarter would have saved us a lot of time, effort and, it goes without saying, misery. But most important, our chances of getting it right would have been greatly enhanced.