In his most pointed annual State of the City address, Mayor Anthony Foxx said streetcar critics such as Gov. Pat McCrory are using smoke and mirrors, and that some opposition stems from the train line serving low-income areas.
The streetcar has been the main sticking point in passing a long-term capital plan, which has stymied the City Council since June. Foxx said after his speech this has been the hardest year of his public life.
The mayors speech comes three days before council members meet for their annual budget retreat, which may be the third significant attempt in eight months to strike a deal.
Foxx, a Democrat, said the city of Charlotte is at a crossroads because it cannot grow its tax base through annexation of rural areas and has little room to build new suburbs. To keep the city healthy, Foxx said council members must invest in long-struggling areas such as Beatties Ford Road, Central Avenue and Independence Boulevard.
The $119 million streetcar extension, he said, will spark economic development.
He said that McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor, has interjected himself into the debate over the capital plan by saying the streetcar could derail $299 million in state funding for the $1.1 billion Lynx Blue Line extension. Foxx said last week that be believed McCrory threatened the city over the possible loss of transit funding if it moved forward with building the streetcar.
In his speech, Foxx said the city wants to partner with leaders in Raleigh.
However, we reject help inconsistent with local priorities and any effort to perpetuate the so-called culture of intimidation, Foxx said in his speech.
That was a comment aimed at McCrory, a Republican.
In an interview with the Observer Saturday, McCrory said he was giving the city helpful advice about how some legislators view the streetcar.
Four years ago, during his first run for governor, McCrory said there was a culture of intimidation in Raleigh, with mayors afraid to criticize the N.C. Department of Transportation; some local Democrats said McCrory was practicing what he once criticized.
Talk in Raleigh
In his speech, Foxx said: In fact, in the backrooms of Raleigh, there appears to be a serious conversation about removing city control over the Charlotte Douglas Airport, eliminating revenues we count on to pay for police and firefighters, and cutting off transit funds. Thats wrong.
Some legislators have been reportedly discussing creating an authority to manage the airport, which is now a city department. Aviation director Jerry Orr has said an authority would be beneficial for the airport, but that he isnt leading any effort to break away from the city.
An authority would have its own board, meaning the aviation director would no longer report to the city manager and Charlotte City Council.
Interim City Manager Julie Burch is against an authority.
Under the current system, the City Council must approve most airport expenditures and plans. But the airports success means council members usually take a hands-off approach, approving most airport items without discussion.
Foxx wants Chamber help
Foxx also called on the Charlotte Chamber to do more to support the capital plan, which originally totaled $926 million and required an 8 percent property tax hike.
I got letters from the Chamber to support baseball. I got no letters to support the capital plan, said Foxx, who is in his second term.
In response to Foxxs comments, the Chamber released a letter from June stating its support for the need for a Capital Investment Plan. The letter said the Chamber is strongly in support of some parts of the plan and divided on others.
Foxx has previously stated that he wanted the Chamber to endorse the entire capital spending plan, rather than the general idea of having one.
The mayor suggested that opposition to the $119 million streetcar among council members and business leaders was due to where it goes. The full 10-mile streetcar route travels through mostly minority neighborhoods.
After the speech, Foxx said the issue is much more complex than black, white and brown.
Its income, history and perception, he said. There are people who live in Central Avenue and Beatties Ford Road who have as much ambition as someone in south Charlotte.
The streetcar has been a divisive issue among council members and in the community. Six of 11 council members are against building the streetcar, or are wary of using property tax dollars to do so.
Only two council members attended Mondays speech John Autry and David Howard. Both are streetcar supporters.
The capital improvement program isnt on the agenda for Thursday and Fridays budget retreat, which will be focused on the upcoming years operating budget. It could be discussed, however.
During his speech, Foxx said the capital plan is more important than a new baseball stadium and football. The mayor was referring to talks between the city and the Carolina Panthers on taxpayers paying for as much as $125 million in improvements to Bank of America Stadium.
When asked after the speech whether Foxx would insist on a capital plan before allowing money for the Panthers to move forward, the mayor said its not necessarily an either or. That leaves the door open for financial help for the Panthers before a capital plan is approved.
The first half of Foxxs speech focused on what he believes are positives in the city, such as higher housing prices, the city maintaining its AAA bond rating and an increase in the number of people with jobs.
He said that one lesson of Black History Month is that people who fought for equal rights knew that equal opportunity and economic empowerment were both morally right and good economics.
He later said: If we were to hold the mirror to our city today, we should see that, for all of our strengths, we lack a galvanizing vision of our community.
He said a 2006 City Council decision to raise property taxes allowed the city to hire more police, build new roads and invest in affordable housing.
He singled out a man in the audience named Carl Frank Caldwell, who Foxx said was a former teacher who now lives at Moore Place, a new housing project for homeless residents.
Because the city invested in Moore Place, Carl...has found his dignity again, Foxx said. Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed to this story.