Mayor offers non-streetcar spending plan

There now are a number of options on the table for what Charlotte leaders should do with the 2014 fiscal year budget and accompanying capital investment plan, after Mayor Anthony Foxx added two new possibilities this month.

But even if one of those spending plans doesn’t include the much-maligned streetcar project extension, as one of Foxx’s new plans offers, south Charlotte’s representative on city council still wants taxpayers to have a direct say in how much money comes out of their pockets.

Last year’s $926 million proposed spending plan now seems to have lost the support of Foxx, who said in a letter to council members and the public this month that “the city manager’s original recommendation of a 3.6-cents property tax increase is too large to garner majority support” and “clearly, the budget must be scaled back and refined to reflect the … realities” of a split between council members. That split came mostly in regard to a proposed $119 million project to extend the streetcar track, with four council members opposing the project, two supporting it if the funds came from another source and five wanting to pay for the project out of a capital investment plan funded by the 3.6-cent property tax increase. Any proposal last summer needed six votes to pass – or seven if what passed did not include the streetcar funding, as a coalition would need enough votes to override a likely veto from Foxx. Another proposal last summer, a 2.44-cent tax increase that
didn’t include the streetcar project, was passed before being vetoed by Foxx.

After months of discussions, council voted to pass a budget with no capital investment plan knowing the topic would come back up for discussion during the next budget season, which is now under way.

“Everyone seems to understand the fiscal cliff awaiting the city in 2014,” Foxx wrote to council members, referring to economic risks the city would be taking by not passing an investment plan in 2013. “Council members are torn between paths of fiscal responsibility: not raising taxes at all and raising them as necessary to promote the long-term health of the city.”

One of Foxx’s proposals includes a 1.97-cent tax increase that would fund construction of new police stations (including one in south Charlotte), road and bridge projects and neighborhood improvements. The plan would not include the streetcar, though Foxx’s proposal said it’s one of a number of projects, worth nearly $471 million total, that would be “deferred to a future” investment plan discussion. The other proposal, with a 3-cent tax increase, would include all transit investments like the streetcar. Both plans would be over a five-year window instead of the eight years proposed last summer.

The 1.97-cent tax increase plan would, for now, do away with: $119 million for the streetcar; $102.5 million for infrastructure improvements in the northeast corridor along the planned route of the light rail’s Blue Line; $35 million for a 26-mile walking trail through the city; $28 million for the Applied Innovation corridor; $25 million for redevelopment in the Bojangles’ Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium area; $17 million for affordable housing; $15 million for sidewalk and pedestrian safety projects and $2 million for sidewalk and bikeway improvements; $4 million for work at the Idlewild and Monroe roads intersection; and $123 million more for other infrastructure projects.

Either plan would only need six votes to pass, as Foxx is unlikely to veto his own budget proposal, though south Charlotte’s Warren Cooksey has already said he can’t get behind what the mayor’s offering.

“I am not going to vote to increase people’s property tax bills,” Cooksey wrote in an email to South Charlotte Weekly. The Ballantyne-area representative on city council was one of the driving forces behind stopping the tax increase last summer. Instead, Cooksey said any tax increase should first have to be approved by Charlotte voters, just like a general obligation bond cities use for large projects.

“Any proposal that includes such a provision (to let voters decide) will have my support, though I would prefer that the streetcar not be a part of it,” Cooksey wrote.

The representative’s public vote proposal got little traction when brought before city council in the past, though he’s hoping to bring it back up when council meets in the new year to restart budget negotiations. Foxx had postponed at least one budget discussion between council members after realizing a different tactic was needed to break the streetcar stalemate.

“This capital budget issue must move between these same two extremes,” Foxx wrote to council members. “If every council member is wholly right, nothing will get done. There is a middle ground here, and I hope one of these proposals will get us there.”

If council can’t come to an agreement on a spending plan, the matter may be left to the next council. Elections in November could unseat council members and change the dynamics of the streetcar and investment plan debate. Foxx said he hopes it doesn’t come to that, because more delays on passing an investment plan could put the city’s AAA credit rating at risk since it shows Charlotte government can’t come to an agreement on planning for the city’s future. Both Foxx and Cooksey said that’s a path council needs to avoid as negotiations continue.

Find both of Foxx’s proposals at South Charlotte Weekly’s website, www.thecharlotteweekly.com, by searching “Foxx’s Proposals.”

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