Charlotte’s budget passes, keeps tax rate at 43.7 cents
by Mike Parks
With two miles of streetcar line standing between them Monday night, Charlotte City Council members voted not to increase the city’s property tax rate this year. But that doesn’t mean the $926 million in planned projects are going away any time soon.
Council voted 7 to 4 Monday, June 25, to approve a budget that didn’t include a tax increase or the capital improvement projects an increase would have helped fund, like the costly extension of the streetcar project that was the sticking point for many on council. The passed budget did include a 3 percent raise and domestic partner benefits for city employees, a handful of infrastructure projects not tied to a tax increase, a 6 percent increase in storm water fees and an increase in Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities fees.
The vote came a few hours after Mayor Anthony Foxx vetoed a budget council had passed by one vote Monday afternoon. That budget would have approved a tax increase of nearly 2.5 cents but killed money for the streetcar and other projects. Council did not take a vote to try and overturn that veto Monday evening, instead moving forward on other proposals and eventually settling on abandoning the increase for this year.
It was a victory at least for now for south Charlotte’s two representatives on council. Republicans Warren Cooksey and Andy Dulin have been fighting against a property tax increase since the idea was first proposed earlier this year.
“While this is just a delay, it’s a valuable delay,” Cooksey said. “It’s a delay that I think is necessary so we can have the community-wide conversation we need to have about Charlotte infrastructure. … This gives us the time to have those conversations … to talk about what our future as a city is going to be.”
Council members first struck down the 8.26 percent tax increase two weeks ago, which would have increased the city’s tax rate to 47.3 cents per $100 of taxable property. Cooksey and Dulin were joined then by four Democrats in voting down the increase. Patrick Cannon, Claire Fallon and Beth Pickering all said now just wasn’t the time for such a large tax increase, while Michael Barnes was mostly against the idea of property taxes paying for a $119 million extension of the Uptown streetcar project.
Speaking before Monday’s vote, both Cooksey and Dulin said they hoped to come out of the process with nothing more than a 2.44 cent tax increase – level with the tax decrease from the county this year. Neither really expected to come away with no increase at all.
“Anything below 3.6 cents is a huge victory for the city of Charlotte,” Dulin said of the original proposed increase prior to Monday’s vote. “I would like to have it at zero,” Dulin added of an increase, “but whether we can get it to zero or not… I don’t know.”
Making a presentation before Monday’s vote, Foxx first made his pitch for approving the 8.26 percent tax increase needed to pay for all the projects included in the planned capital investment program despite council having already voted once to not approve that rate on June 11.
Foxx then made two suggestions: either approve a scaled-back investment program that didn’t include some things like the controversial streetcar project, alone $119 million; or keep the tax rate flat and push off talks of a tax increase until more support can be won for the massive package of projects.
“… Rather than allow the acrimony that has existed on this body for the last couple weeks and perhaps has spilled out into the community, another option is perhaps to consider maintaining our effort on our tax rate, keeping it where it is and taking the conversation about a capital program over the next year, really digging into it, building community support for it and moving forward from there,” Foxx said.
“My point here is that I think we’ve got a responsibility here not only to pass a budget but to do it in a way that … helps bring our community together,” Foxx said. The two options “are not ideal, not what I want, not what I believe is best for the community ultimately. But it’s far better than us trying to cram for the test which is what I think we’re doing right now” by trying to force through an edited list of capital improvement projects.
In the end, a group of Democrats on council decided to live to fight another day on the investment plan in hopes of saving the whole package, with the two Republicans jumping in line if it meant putting off a tax increase at least another year.
“Maybe we need to go back to the drawing table and get this right and figure out how do we help the whole community,” Democrat David Howard said while making a motion to move the entire tax-increase-supported capital improvement plan off this year’s budget. “And while we do that, a lot of our friends in south (Charlotte) will get what they want for at least a year while we go back and talk about it. But I think it’s more important to move this entire community forward than to kind of pick and choose here and there, and that’s the only reason why I bought into this” $926 million plan.
What was passed Monday is nearly identical to a motion made by Cooksey in May and then again earlier this month. Cooksey proposed approving the budget with no tax increase. It would have approved any investment project not tied to a tax increase. The only support he got then was from Dulin. This week, the same plan gained the support of Democrats John Autry, Howard, Patsy Kinsey, LaWana Mayfield and James Mitchell.
Falling on the other side of the issue were Barnes, Cannon, Fallon and Pickering. The four supported Barnes’ smaller tax increase proposal if it meant paying for a few projects the group found vital. All four had voted against the $926 million plan earlier.
“I know that this is not the budget that many people around this dais would like to have seen,” Barnes said while supporting his 2.44-cent tax increase proposal. “I think that from my perspective it’s a budget that’s responsible because it does in fact address many needs around the city.”
Following the vote, Foxx spoke about moving forward on gaining support for an investment plan as soon as possible.
“It’s incredibly disappointing not to be able to have a capital program this year, but it is I think better to get the right one for this community and one that we can, as universal as we can, feel good about,” Foxx said. “So I would like us to start work right away on a capital improvement plan that can be taken up if not in 2013 (then) in 2014 and we should do that as a full council. So I’m going to suggest that we immediately start that work in September.”
Cooksey, for his part, will start work much sooner than that. The Ballantyne-area representative says he’ll start the work soon on seeing what, if any, projects in his area should be taken into consideration when council starts talking about infrastructure improvements. The problem, Cooksey said, is most of the projects on the current list came from recent area plans in east, north and west Charlotte. The most recent such plan in the Ballantyne area was the Providence Road/I-485 plan in 2000.
“Where more time is helpful to south Charlotte is we can talk about what kinds of capital needs to consider cause there is nothing sitting on the shelf,” Cooksey said.
Find the complete passed budget at the city’s website, www.citybudget.charmeck.org.