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The mayor’s new capital plan choices

Council can think big or small, but is there time to do both?

We’re not saying Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx is a like a car salesman, but the latest all-or-nothing capital plan choices he’s offering the Charlotte City Council seem a little like going to an auto dealership. Want a roof rack on that new Ford you’ve been eyeing? Well, that’s part of a luxury package that includes heated seats and a primo sound system. Want just the roof rack? Too bad.

In an effort to break a six-month capital budget stalemate, Foxx presented two new spending proposals at Monday night’s council meeting. One plan – let’s call it the premium package – was similar to the $926 million Capital Improvement Plan proposed by City Manager Curt Walton and rejected by the council in June. It’s an ambitious mix of basic infrastructure improvements and targeted investments that could help revitalize struggling Charlotte neighborhoods, including an expansion of the Charlotte streetcar line toward Johnson C. Smith University. The total cost: $803 million, resulting in a 6.9 percent property tax hike.

The second plan – which Foxx called a “bare-bones effort” – would narrow the capital improvement scope largely to basic needs such as roads, sidewalks and public safety. There would be no streetcar expansion and few other targeted investments. The cost: $464 million through 2016, resulting in a tax increase of 4.5 percent.

With his proposals, Foxx is giving the council two bigger choices: Reinvest in the future with a plan that includes the streetcar, or go the conventional budget route with a keep-the-lights-on approach. The proposals also present the council with a tidy political choice: In one plan, everybody gets a little something in exchange for agreeing to unpalatable things. In the other, everybody feels the pain of losing projects for their districts.

We think there’s time for a third option: The council can and should craft a new plan that includes the best of the mayor’s proposals. That means including core infrastructure investments such as sidewalks and road improvements, along with targeted investments that show real promise of helping struggling communities grow and prosper. Anything else, in difficult economic times, is an unnecessary burden on taxpayers.

Foxx is understandably skeptical about starting the line item process all over again; he got burned in June with Walton’s plan, which he thought had achieved consensus on the council. On changing the new proposals, he told the editorial board Tuesday: “It’s a little like a house of cards. You start moving one and the whole thing falls down.”

But with a budget deadline more than six months out, it’s too early to shut down the process. There’s still time to cast a skeptical eye at the urgency of items like $64 million for a Joint Communications Center for CMPD, which is included in both of Foxx’s spending plans. There’s also time to cull the proposals for the best of promising investments, such as a developing a northeast Charlotte corridor of startup companies in emerging fields. Those projects are important to the city not only because they can revitalize communities, but because growing from within helps Charlotte increase its tax base, which could pay for future capital improvements without property tax increases.

As for the most controversial of those projects – the streetcar? Foxx tells the editorial board that city staff have explored alternative funding sources, such as a Special Assessment District in which commercial property owners along the line would pay more in taxes. Foxx isn’t sure those sources will add up to much, and he’s even less optimistic the state will help out. Other cities, however, have been creative in finding ways to lessen a streetcar project’s impact on property taxes. We’re unconvinced Charlotte has fully examined and exhausted the possibilities.

The mayor’s proposals are a good start at reframing stalled budget talks, and his perseverance and vision for growth is something the city should embrace. We hope the council does exactly that and builds a budget vehicle that meets our city’s short- and long-term needs – without giving its residents sticker shock.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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