South Charlotte’s representatives again working to kill tax hike
by Mike Parks
The cheer that went up from the crowd last week when Charlotte City Council voted down a 8.26 percent tax increase may have been a little premature, as council members continue to negotiate on how much to tax and how much to spend next fiscal year.
A line has been drawn in the sand over the 2012-13 tax rate, and council members have spent their time since the tax vote Monday, June 11, trying to get each other to cross it. Firmly on one side is Warren Cooksey, the Ballantyne-area representative, and Andy Dulin, the SouthPark-area representative. Both Republicans say they are very much against a tax increase of any kind.
Cooksey doesn’t want a tax increase after many of his constituents saw their tax bill go up following the 2011 property tax revaluation. But he says he could settle in for a 2.44-cent tax increase only because that’s how much the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners opted to lower their tax rate this year. But just because the county approved a tax cut doesn’t mean Charlotte has to approve a tax hike.
“… the 2.44 (cents) is an admission that (the county) overcharged people and they’re just making it right,” Cooksey said on Tuesday, a few days after a budget workshop brought council members no closer on a compromise. “It doesn’t mean that 2.44 (cents) is now free for the council to play with.”
Shortly after the June 11 vote to kill the 8.26 percent tax increase and accompanying $926 million in capital improvement project spending, Cooksey offered a counter proposal to only approve spending on projects that didn’t require a tax increase. That got support from Dulin but no others.
Dulin’s proposal? “Zero tax increase,” he said Tuesday. “I thought a week ago Monday … it was a good decision (to vote down a tax increase) and the city of Charlotte hasn’t rebounded (economically) in the last 10 days.”
The two south Charlotte representatives are voicing the concerns they’ve heard from many in their districts who say the tax burden falls unfairly on their shoulders. Roughly 50 percent of the city’s residential property taxes come from a chunk of the city south of Uptown and between Park and Providence roads. Cooksey says those people’s voices are why there’s still a debate taking place instead of an approved 8.26 percent tax increase.
“It absolutely wouldn’t be happening if people hadn’t weighed in with emails and phone calls and showing up to council meetings,” he said. “People made a difference in this process. The public demanded that we don’t raise taxes this year.”
For a while it seemed Cooksey and Dulin were the only ones – at least on council – against the tax increase and spending plan, with a straw poll in late May showing all nine Democrats on council supported the proposed budget. Tables were turned June 11 when four Democrats – Michael Barnes, Patrick Cannon, Claire Fallon and Beth Pickering – sided with the two Republicans, and now Dulin hopes to keep enough of that support to keep taxes down.
“Anything below 3.6 cents is a huge victory for the city of Charlotte,” Dulin said of the original proposed increase. That would have raised taxes to 47.3-cents per $100 of assessed property value. “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.”
Council members are now going through the proposed package of $926 million in capital improvements to see if another investment plan can be salvaged. Most of the projects are based outside of south Charlotte and aimed at luring in businesses and increasing property values in east, north and west Charlotte. The south Charlotte projects consist of two police headquarters, an extension of Park South Drive near SouthPark Mall and a portion of the Cross Charlotte Multi-Use Trail in south Charlotte.
So, the two Republicans don’t have a whole lot of projects they can give up toward the “greater good” of lowering the overall cost of the investment package.
Cooksey, who only has the one $6 million police station in his entire district being funded by the plan, said he’d give up the project if it meant lowering the tax rate.
“I have nothing in District 7 to trade with,” Cooksey said of negotiating with other district representatives. “In the $926 million package, the only named project in District 7 was a $6 million police station. I said, ‘OK, if it limits the tax increase, take (the station) out.’ … There’s nothing left for me to trade.
“… What we are waiting for is for the people who are more concerned about projects than tax rate to figure out what projects can get supported with six votes.”
The $119 million streetcar extension project, which has caused a lot of grumbling with south Charlotte taxpayers, is one sticking point. “The streetcar is the line in the sand for most everybody, regardless of whether you want it or don’t want it,” Dulin said. “The nine Democrats on council – and remember, there’s nine of them, they can do anything they want – they haven’t been able to reconcile where they want to be on that.”
Some council members have suggested throwing out various projects here and there, but not nearly enough to get a majority behind one certain budget plan. A plan has to be approved before the end of the month, otherwise the city will have to pass an emergency spending bill to keep government running. The city manager is crafting some emergency options for Monday’s council meeting.
“My line in the sand is people’s tax bills do not go up in September,” Cooksey said. If a council member puts forward a proposal that meets those parameters, “they’ll get my vote,” he said.
The wildcard in the whole process for both Republicans is Mayor Anthony Foxx, they say, adding the mayor could decide to veto a budget he doesn’t like – especially if one passes with a limited capital investment plan.
“At the end of the day, this is Anthony Foxx’s budget,” Dulin said. Added Cooksey, “I really hope the mayor doesn’t really plan to shut down city government over his personal projects in this budget.”
If Foxx vetoes the budget, council could get another shot Wednesday, June 27, to override the veto. It would take seven votes. Otherwise, an emergency funding measure would have to be put in place.