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$477 million in bond money: Where would the money go?

As the economy falters, government officials will ask voters' permission Nov. 4 to borrow $477.2 million for public projects ranging from parks to affordable housing.

Bond advocates know they have a challenge ahead.

“Given everything that's going on, this year it's hard to get people's attention,” said Natalie English, who is helping to lead the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce effort to educate voters about the bonds.

It's slow going from several angles. Businesses, which fund the pro-bond education campaign, are not giving as much this year, she said – the group has collected about $190,000 compared with $270,000 raised last year.

And voters are distracted by the presidential election and concerned by the economy. English said a recent Chamber poll found only 36 percent of voters are aware bonds are on the ballot.

But her team has begun its push. A Web site is up (mycommunitybonds.com), billboards are appearing and yard signs should sprout this week. The campaign is employing a new tactic this year: mobile billboards strapped to the backs of people at crowded events.

The theme to the campaign is: “My community. My vote.” It's an approach that “predated the meltdown in the markets,” said Adam Bernstein of Carolina PR, a chief strategist in the effort. But it's one that has been adaptable during the current unease about the economy. He said Charlotte has a good record of supporting public projects, something that has insulated it from more dire economic woes.

“We try to remind voters that even in bad times, you need to invest in your community,” he said.

There has been no organized effort to defeat the bond initiatives.

On Nov. 4, residents will vote “yes” or “no” to bonds in four categories: road repairs, neighborhood improvements, affordable housing and parks. The $250 million parks bond is a county initiative; the others are city bonds.

The city portion of the referendum list – $227.2 million – is the biggest city bond proposal in at least a dozen years.

The road bonds are slated to pay for improvements to at least nine specific roads, as well as help with general programs such as traffic-light maintenance and improving bicycle access on existing roads. The specific road projects include improving Rea Road between Colony Road and N.C. 51 in the southern part of the city and Statesville Road between Starita Road and Keith Drive in north Charlotte.

About $16 million of the neighborhood bonds would go toward street and sidewalk work at the Eastland Mall site in east Charlotte, off Central Avenue, if that site is redeveloped. Another $6 million would go toward similar work at the Double Oaks project off Statesville Avenue, where an apartment complex will be developed into a mix of residential units, shops and office space.

The specific uses of the affordable housing money would be determined through the city's Housing Trust Fund, a body that helps developers offset the cost of building homes for people of low and moderate incomes.

City officials point out that the bonds' passage will not mean an increase in taxes. City staff has set an overall borrowing capacity based on the current tax rate, and $227.2 million stays under that ceiling, officials have said.

In a recent memo to City Council members, City Manager Curt Walton outlined the effects of the economy on the current budget. He described a hiring freeze and other measures the city is taking to save money. He also noted that if the voters approve the bonds, City Council still has to decide what to do.

“While there is no reason at this point to assume we could not afford to issue this debt if the voters approve,” Walton wrote, “additional Council action would be required … to move ahead with the projects.”

The parks bond proposal would pay for about 60 renovations and new park projects across Mecklenburg, including renovations to the Aquatic Center in uptown and completion of a new sports complex in Matthews. Supporters say it will add much-needed facilities and open space to areas that need it. A portion of the money also will help buy land for future projects, which some commissioners said is needed now because the property may not be available at a later date.

County commissioners were nearly unanimous in putting the parks bond package on the ballot. But Republican Dan Bishop voted against the bonds, saying the county couldn't afford to do any of the projects now.

Bishop said Sunday his views have become more emphatic after county staff told commissioners last week that the unstable market could force the county to delay dozens of construction projects, including about $100 million for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “I would not have that bond referendum go forth in an extraordinary year like this. I would delay it and reduce it in size,” he said.

If the bond package is approved, the county would have up to seven years to issue the debt. So far, county staff have said they do not plan to borrow any of the park money during the next budget year. The impact of the county bonds on the future tax rate isn't clear because the county uses a variety of sources to pay off the debt, county staff has said.

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