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Democrats spar over taxes in mayoral primary debate

Democratic mayoral candidate James Mitchell on Wednesday pledged he would not raise property taxes for two years if elected, even though Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee anticipates the city will need a tax hike next year to cover an operating deficit.

Mitchell, who represents District 2, made the pledge during a League of Women Voters/WTVI/News Channel 14 mayoral debate, where he faced off against Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon and two other candidates.

“I will make a pledge not to increase property taxes as mayor,” Mitchell said.

The City Council in June voted to raise property taxes by 7.25 percent to pay for an $816 million Capital Improvement Program. But Carlee has said the city has a deficit due to a loss of revenue from people appealing their property values.

In the spring, he said the city may have to have another tax hike for fiscal year 2015 of .8 cents, about 2 percent. Council members could also vote to cut programs to balance the budget.

Cannon said he would “absolutely not” be looking to have an additional property tax increase. He said he thought the city could find “other financial models” if money were needed.

Mitchell’s pledge against new taxes was the boldest statement during what was a mostly low-key debate. The primary is Sept. 10.

When asked after the debate about Carlee’s assertion that the city may need more money, Mitchell said any tax hike “couldn’t be done on my watch.”

Mitchell has attacked Cannon with several mailers, most of which accuse Cannon of not fighting hard to keep control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Cannon has said the ads are a “total misrepresentation” of his position on the airport, and that he has voted along with other council members to block the General Assembly’s attempts to create an authority or commission to run Charlotte Douglas.

During the debate, Cannon emphasized that he is fiscally responsible. Cannon said he has tried to protect taxpayers in issues such as building a streetcar and city money for a new uptown baseball stadium for the Charlotte Knights. In those decisions, Cannon only supported proposals after property taxes were removed from the financing plan.

Mitchell often talked about his leadership. He said that was shown by being elected as president of the National League of Cities three years ago, and in working with legislative leaders in Raleigh.

The candidates were asked about their plans for Charlotte Douglas, from trying to keep it under city control to possibly building a fourth parallel runway.

Mitchell said he would ensure the city has a “great relationship” with the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx. Foxx is a friend of Mitchell’s.

Cannon said he would “ensure there is a better line of communication” with the GOP-controlled legislature.

Both candidates said they work with nearby residents to minimize the impact of any new runway.

Two other Democrats are also running: Lucille Puckett and Gary Mitchell Dunn.

The candidates were asked about their plans for the Gold Line, or what’s commonly known as the streetcar. The city apparently failed this week in its bid to receive a federal grant to pay for half of construction costs, a decision that is a setback for the transit project.

Mitchell and Cannon have differed in the past over the streetcar.

In June 2012, Cannon voted against a plan that would have paid for a 2.5-mile extension with property taxes. He supported the streetcar a year later after Carlee removed property taxes from the financing plan.

Mitchell said he has “been a strong advocate from the beginning.”

Cannon said he has been a “proponent” of the streetcar since 1999.

Dunn said he’s against it. Puckett said she thinks the city should “go back to the drawing board” and search for new ways to fund it.

All the candidates said that creating jobs is critical in the next two years.

Candidates were asked whether the City Council pushed the boundaries of the state’s open meetings laws when it met in closed session a number of times to discuss giving financial incentives to the Carolina Panthers. The city ultimately agreed to give the team $87.5 million.

Cannon and Mitchell both said they thought the city was OK in how it negotiated with the Panthers.

“Closed session works if you trust the leaders,” Mitchell said. “When it was time to vote, a public vote was held.”

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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