Twice in the past three years, Charlotte City Council has raised property taxes.
Former county commissioner Jennifer Roberts, who finished first in the Democratic primary, told the Observer she would have voted against both tax increases had she been a council member. She said the increases hadn’t been vetted enough by the community.
Her opponent in the Oct. 6 runoff, Mayor Dan Clodfelter, said if council had voted against the tax increase – as Roberts said she would have done – it would have stopped the city’s $816 million capital spending program. He said her position on voting against the tax increases isn’t realistic.
“There is no free lunch,” he said. “If you want to make investments in the community, you have to find a way to pay for it.”
The winner of the runoff will advance to the Nov. 3 general election against Republican Edwin Peacock, who has made affordability and taxes the main focus of his campaign.
On the campaign trail, Roberts has talked about investing in all parts of the city and creating more opportunity for the city’s poorest residents.
That is the goal of the city’s capital program, which is being funded by a 7.25 percent property tax increase that went into effect in 2013.
The program will build affordable housing, police stations, sidewalks and roads, and will make neighborhood improvements. It will also pay for a cross-county greenway and possibly an amateur sports complex at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
“We need to invest in our infrastructure, no doubt. I am in favor of (the capital program) in principle,” Roberts told the Observer.
But Roberts said she didn’t think the city did enough communicating with residents before voting on the tax increases.
“My thought process is remembering what we had to face during the recession when I was on the county commission,” she said. “When there was an unforeseen gap … we were careful about raising taxes. We wanted to make sure that we explored every opportunity to trim and to be more efficient.”
She said the question of would she have supported past tax increases is difficult to answer because she wasn’t on City Council and wasn’t privy to all discussions. But she said her general sense was that the city hadn’t explored all of its options, including talks with private partners about what they might pay for.
She added: “I thought there was more opportunity to have that community conversation. I didn’t feel those options were exhausted.”
History of tax increases
In 2012, former city manager Curt Walton unveiled a nearly $1 billion capital spending program. But because the project contained $119 million for the streetcar, the council voted against it.
One of the criticisms at the time among some on the council was that they hadn’t had enough time to vet the plan.
But the final vote in 2013 on the tax increase came nearly 18 months after it was first proposed. In that time, council members had numerous meetings with each other, and with residents, to discuss the capital program.
The increase raised property taxes 7.25 percent. The owner of a $200,000 house paid about $63 more a year.
Clodfelter, who was in the North Carolina General Assembly at the time, said he supported the city’s plans to invest in low-income areas, and he said a tax increase was inevitable if the city wanted to pay for it.
Clodfelter said it’s “not realistic” to assume the city could build those projects without more money.
This year’s property tax increase was smaller, at 2 percent. It stemmed from the General Assembly’s decision to repeal the Business Privilege License tax, which cost Charlotte $18.1 million in revenue.
Clodfelter said he supported this year’s budget, in part, because it lowered the garbage fee paid by all residents. That meant that most city residents paid less in fees and taxes than they did the previous year.
During budget negotiations, Clodfelter supported the plan, saying it would shift the burden from homeowners and into businesses.
On the campaign trail, both Clodfelter and Roberts have talked about the need to keep the city affordable and to minimize the tax burden on residents.
Roberts served on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners for eight years.
In her first budget vote in 2005, she voted in favor of a 10.6 percent property tax increase, which helped give Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools a 10 percent increase in operating money.
Most of the budgets she supported kept the property tax rate the same.
In 2011, she supported a budget that lowered the property tax rate by a little more than 2 cents. But nearly 60 percent of homeowners paid more because the county had just undertaken a revaluation of property, and most property increased in value.
In the 2012 budget vote, which would be Roberts’ last on the county board, she voted for lowering the tax rate.
Clodfelter served in the General Assembly for 15 years before being appointed mayor. During his time in Raleigh, he said he voted for both tax increases and decreases.
In the legislature, he was one of the early proponents of repealing the business license tax, which he said was too cumbersome.
The loss of the tax hurt the city financially this year. Clodfelter said he wanted to replace the tax with something else, which legislators didn’t do.
Peacock said he is a better candidate than either Roberts or Clodfelter on the issue of spending.
He questioned whether Roberts would have voted against the tax increases, as she said she would have.
“She would have sided with her Democrats on that,” Peacock said. “I don’t think she knows what she’s saying. That’s not true.”
Peacock also questioned whether Clodfelter will be engaged enough to make difficult budget choices. He said he didn’t hear the mayor make proposals for budget cuts during the city’s budget discussions six months ago.
He also criticized his role in helping repeal the business license tax.
“He’s the originator of the idea,” Peacock said.