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Jail, parks bonds face key decision

Charlotte voters could face their most expensive slate of local bond proposals ever if Mecklenburg County commissioners sign off on packages for new jail and park projects tonight.

Commissioners are set to approve a capital budget that recommends two bond referendums for the November ballot: $360.2 million for a new jail and expansions to the sheriff's office, and $200 million for parks and recreation.

The county projects would join $227.2 million of proposed bonds from the city of Charlotte for roads, affordable housing and neighborhood development.

Together, the city and county packages would eclipse the record $581.6 million in local bonds approved last year.

The potential size of the fall bond slate has sparked concern that voters may not approve the proposals, given the worsening economy.

“I don't want to be asking for a bond amount that is likely to be resisted because the price of gas is four dollars a gallon or because the price of groceries (is) going up,” said Parks Helms, vice chairman of the commissioners.

Commissioners said tonight's vote will set a cap for each bond proposal, and they'll spend the coming weeks revising, and possibly reducing, the plans.

A majority of commissioners polled Monday say they expect the most debate over how big a parks bond to send to voters. There also is some talk about whether to pay for part of the jail using bonds that don't need voter approval.

“The conversation isn't over,” said commissioners' chairman Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat. “We're going to have to make some tough decisions to make sure that we keep the county affordable for our residents.”

Last week, the Charlotte Chamber sent a letter to commissioners asking them to cut the size of the jail and park bonds. Charlotte city councilman John Lassiter, a Republican, hadn't seen the county's proposal, but said, “I don't think you can take any bond for granted.”

Democratic Mecklenburg commissioner Valerie Woodard said she's worried the size of the bond packages could hurt city projects, such as affordable housing. “(Voters are) just intimidated about voting for things that are going to raise their taxes,” she said.

Lassiter said the city wouldn't raise taxes to pay for its projects.

But the impact of the county bonds on the tax rate or debt service payments isn't completely clear yet because the county uses a variety of sources to pay off the debt, said Finance Director Dena Diorio.

Sorting out the bonds

On Monday, commissioners were still sorting out what they'd like to see in the bond proposals.

Helms, a Democrat, said he asked County Manager Harry Jones whether a portion of the costs for a new jail could be paid for using certificates of participation, because that could speed up construction. Last week, Democratic commissioner Dumont Clarke proposed the same thing.

But other commissioners worried that COPs carry a higher interest rate than traditional bonds and would circumvent voters' right to vote on bond packages.

Republican Dan Bishop said the jail should be the county's top priority, and said he'd like the park bonds to be smaller.

The commissioners meeting starts at 6 tonight at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. in uptown. Staff writer Julia Oliver contributed.

Charlotte voters could face their most expensive slate of local bond proposals ever if Mecklenburg County commissioners sign off on packages for new jail and park projects tonight.

Commissioners are set to approve a capital budget that recommends two bond referendums for the November ballot: $360.2 million for a new jail and expansions to the sheriff's office, and $200 million for parks and recreation.

The county projects would join $227.2 million of proposed bonds from the city of Charlotte for roads, affordable housing and neighborhood development.

Together, the city and county packages would eclipse the record $581.6 million in local bonds approved last year.

The potential size of the fall bond slate has sparked concern that voters may not approve the proposals, given the worsening economy.

“I don't want to be asking for a bond amount that is likely to be resisted because the price of gas is four dollars a gallon or because the price of groceries (is) going up,” said Parks Helms, vice chairman of the commissioners.

Commissioners said tonight's vote will set a cap for each bond proposal, and they'll spend the coming weeks revising, and possibly reducing, the plans.

A majority of commissioners polled Monday say they expect the most debate over how big a parks bond to send to voters. There also is some talk about whether to pay for part of the jail using bonds that don't need voter approval.

“The conversation isn't over,” said commissioners' chairman Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat. “We're going to have to make some tough decisions to make sure that we keep the county affordable for our residents.”

Last week, the Charlotte Chamber sent a letter to commissioners asking them to cut the size of the jail and park bonds. Charlotte city councilman John Lassiter, a Republican, hadn't seen the county's proposal, but said, “I don't think you can take any bond for granted.”

Democratic Mecklenburg commissioner Valerie Woodard said she's worried the size of the bond packages could hurt city projects, such as affordable housing. “(Voters are) just intimidated about voting for things that are going to raise their taxes,” she said.

Lassiter said the city wouldn't raise taxes to pay for its projects.

But the impact of the county bonds on the tax rate or debt service payments isn't completely clear yet because the county uses a variety of sources to pay off the debt, said Finance Director Dena Diorio.

Sorting out the bonds

On Monday, commissioners were still sorting out what they'd like to see in the bond proposals.

Helms, a Democrat, said he asked County Manager Harry Jones whether a portion of the costs for a new jail could be paid for using certificates of participation, because that could speed up construction. Last week, Democratic commissioner Dumont Clarke proposed the same thing.

But other commissioners worried that COPs carry a higher interest rate than traditional bonds and would circumvent voters' right to vote on bond packages.

Republican Dan Bishop said the jail should be the county's top priority, and said he'd like the park bonds to be smaller.

The commissioners meeting starts at 6 tonight at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. in uptown. Staff writer Julia Oliver contributed.

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