Politics & Government

How will Charlotte City Council spend your money? City Council talks 2019 priorities.

Between spending tens of millions on affordable housing, deciding whether to push for four-year terms, and an upcoming election, Charlotte City Council members have their work cut out for them this year.

The 11-member council, top city staff members and Mayor Vi Lyles met in Raleigh for their annual three-day retreat. They discussed everything from cost overruns that threaten the Cross Charlotte Trail to building more transit to streamlining how the council works in committees.

One theme that emerged repeatedly was the need to take action and a sense that the city’s growth, development, rising home prices and rent are outpacing the City Council.

“I think we can get paralyzed by analysis when we have the opportunity to do something,” Lyles said during a discussion about affordable housing.

Here are some of the biggest issues facing the Charlotte City Council in 2019:

Figuring out how to pay for ‘big ideas’

City Council is still trying to sort through the fallout from the stunning admission by city staff this month that the Cross Charlotte Trail is more than $77 million short to complete the 26-mile course from Ballantyne to University City. The entire project was expected to cost about $38 million.

At the retreat, City Manager Marcus Jones told council members that other projects expected to be funded by previous bond issues could also face shortfalls. The problem is that under the city’s previous budgeting process, major capital projects didn’t have detailed scoping, engineering and cost estimates done until after they were approved by City Council, Jones said.

“We have three bond cycles of many projects that didn’t have scoping,” Jones said. That means that, in many cases, the budget estimates are way off. Jones has previously said the city has identified at least $50 million worth of other cost overruns from previous bond-funded projects, including an additional $20 million required for the new joint emergency communications center.

Jones said Tuesday that earlier projects were not examined in enough detail before elected officials gave them the go-ahead.

“The problem is that many people with good intentions took a number of projects they thought would better the community,” said Jones. “Conceptually, it sounds great.”

Now, city staff will do detailed cost estimates, backed up by engineering, before new capital plans are approved. And city staff will monitor and report on the projects’ costs annually.

“I like the idea of more pre-planning and scoping to avoid another Cross Charlotte,” said council member Dimple Ajmera.

But council member Tariq Bokhari said he’s still concerned about what other projects might pop up with major cost overruns.

“It’s begging the question of how much more is out there,” he said.

How to fund affordable housing

Voters last year approved tripling the city’s Housing Trust Fund, used to subsidize affordable housing, to $50 million. Meanwhile, the Foundation for the Carolinas is raising another $50 million, while Bank of America, Barings and Ally Financial have committed to making $50 million in low-interest loans for low-income housing developers.

All of that money will give the city its biggest pot of affordable housing money ever, as Charlotte confronts rapidly rising home prices and rent. But there were questions at the retreat on how to spend that money. The amount will fund only about 2,200 new, subsidized units — far fewer than the estimated 34,000 affordable housing units the city will need over the coming decades.

To help administer the funds, the city is considering a partnership with the Local Initiatives Support Coalition, a New York-based non-profit that’s opening a Charlotte office. LISC would vet potential deals with developers for the city, and solicit more private investors to underwrite new developments.

There was an unexpected amount of opposition and uncertainty about the LISC partnership at the retreat, however. Some council members said they were uneasy giving up some of their oversight to LISC, and want more information about how the partnership would work. The city has traditionally vetted affordable housing subsidy deals with developers itself, on a case-by-case basis.

“Some people are waiting on you guys to come up and tell us the plan, and I’m not sure that’s your role,” Bokhari told a LISC official.

Council member LaWana Mayfield said the city’s focus on meeting the goal it set in 2016 of creating or preserving 5,000 affordable housing units should include how many affordable units are being lost to redevelopment.

“We have to redefine what success looks like,” she said. “We owe the community the respect to do it right.”

But council member Braxton Winston said the council needs to take a new approach to its affordable housing spending, and bringing in LISC as a partner will shake things up.

“We have a choice here: Trying to do something new or just doing the same thing over and over again,” he said. “We keep getting stuck.”

After almost an hour of discussion, Lyles called for a straw vote on the issue, and council decided to move forward with LISC.

Four-year terms

Charlotte City Council members are still considering the idea of extending their terms from two years to four. The idea has proven unpopular with voters, who rejected a similar plan for the county commissioners in 2015.

City Council members could extend their terms through a vote themselves, but such a move would then be subject to a voter referendum. Council is more likely to go straight to a referendum and ask voters to approve the change, if they pursue four-year terms.

“Four-year staggered terms is a best practice,” said Winston. “We need to decide how we’re going to sell best practices to our constituents.”

City Council plans to discuss the issue at its Monday meeting. Lyles said if there’s not public support, making the change could be difficult even if four-year terms are common in Charlotte’s peer cities.

“It can be the best practice for 99 percent, but if the public decides it’s not the best for Charlotte, that’s OK,” she said.

Upcoming elections

Looming over the retreat: upcoming elections for the mayor and all City Council members. The primary election, which will likely decide many of the district races where no opposition is expected, are scheduled for September, with a runoff in October if necessary and a general election in November.

Some council members have said they’re concerned that two-year terms don’t give members enough time to learn complex issues. They’ve also complained that council business tends to grind to a crawl once campaign season starts in the summer.

“We really have 15 months as a council to get as much as we can done,” said Mayfield. “We have clear goals, but we don’t have enough time to address them.”

Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.