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A more purposeful city budget proposal?

The budget City Manager Ron Carlee submitted Monday to the Charlotte City Council bows to at least a few political and practical realities. By pulling a proposed streetcar extension from the capital plan, Carlee nodded to the political toxicity of paying for the $119 million project with property taxes. His budget also reflects that the recession has left Charlotte with a revenue problem, and it acknowledges that without a new approach to growth, the revenue future isn’t sunnier.

Here’s one more reality to consider: Charlotteans have tight budgets, too, so if their taxes need to go up in this still struggling economy, there had better be strong justification for it. That’s the job of City Council members moving forward.

Carlee, by temporarily yanking the streetcar extension from the capital budget, is providing a smart example to follow. We’ve encouraged city officials to thoroughly explore alternative funding methods for the streetcar, and that’s what the city manager says he’s doing.

It won’t be easy – federal and state money for transit projects has dwindled, threatening not only the streetcar, but Charlotte’s overall 2030 Transit Plan. That’s why Charlotte’s Metropolitan Transit Commission formed a transit funding committee in February to explore how to pay for future light rail and streetcar projects. A draft report, discussed by the committee Monday, offers some intriguing ideas from other cities, including special tax districts and public-private partnerships for transit.

Mayor Anthony Foxx and Carlee believe the streetcar is important to the economic revival of communities near Johnson C. Smith University, and it’s a piece of a larger transportation plan that would benefit west and east Charlotte. Carlee’s capital plan also includes money for new infrastructure west of the airport, which is not dissimilar to investments Charlotte made in south Charlotte and the University area in their development infancies. As with those, it’s important that Charlotte take advantage of places where it can grow tax revenue.

That’s the premise behind Carlee’s budget, which is much the same as the one proposed in 2012 by then City Manager Curt Walton. Both acknowledge that Charlotte’s days of annexing its way to more revenue are over. The city must grow its tax base from within, and much of that growth has to come from reviving struggling neighborhoods. Without that, we can expect property tax increases more frequently than the seven years since the last hike in Charlotte.

The City Council’s task now is to make sure capital investment items will actually work toward that growth. New infrastructure along the planned light rail route in northeast Charlotte make sense, but does Charlotte need to spend millions now for cross-city bike and pedestrian trails? Is $25 million to renovate Bojangles’ Coliseum too speculative?

The council needs to ask the same questions of similar items, from six new police stations to other neighborhood improvements: Does each do enough directly to help the city’s growth? Does each merit raising taxes, right now?

Carlee got the new budget plan off to the right start – saving the streetcar for another day and different funding. It’s the council’s turn to responsibly follow suit.

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