Council spends like it’s 1999

If you’re feeling guilty about dropping serious dollars on one of those new iPhones last week, here’s another way to look at it: It’s nothing compared with the Charlotte City Council, which spent more than $100 million – with millions more to come – in just a few hours Monday evening.

Feel better? Well, no, neither do we. The council had two opportunities Monday to be better stewards of taxpayers’ money. They didn’t do much with either.

First was Time Warner Cable Arena. The Charlotte Hornets and Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority say the building needs $33.5 million for upgrades, repairs and maintenance. Much of that is required by a 2003 contract that called for the city to keep the arena up to NBA standards.

As we said in this space last month, the city should pay for work the contract requires, but the council should examine the Hornets’ and CRVA’s requests closely to see what we might not need to spend. At least one council member did exactly that. District 6 representative Kenny Smith took a tour of the arena this month, and he found items big and small that he thought needed another look.

The big items included a $1.4 million ticket office relocation, plus a $7.7 million high-definition upgrade for a scoreboard that’s already HD ready and was considered one of the NBA’s most advanced scoreboards just three years ago. The small items included $250,000 for paint, carpet and counter tops in three press rooms. That one offended Smith’s sensibilities, and it should make all of us wonder how bloated the other requests might be.

The council, however, didn’t seem terribly troubled. Smith’s concerns got little traction, and the arena money was approved with a 9-2 vote.

But that was just the warm-up. Next, the council approved $75 million for the city’s streetcar extension, provided the federal government ponies up the other $75 million in grants. Supporters of the extension, which would expand the current route to Johnson C. Smith University, say the streetcar will spark development in struggling communities.

That’s true for light rail projects, which have been successful in Charlotte and other cities. But the streetcar has an iffier track record, including in cities that supporters point to as successes. Even City Manager Ron Carlee, a streetcar supporter, says that economic development benefits wouldn’t arrive for another 20 to 30 years, when the full 10-mile plan is complete.

The big question: How much will all of that cost? Already, the extension has gone 20 percent over 2013 estimates – without anything actually being built. The city also estimates that the existing 1.5 miles of track plus 2.5-mile extension will require $6.2 million a year to operate, far more than what rider fees will bring in.

And still, despite years of trying, the city has few alternatives to property taxes for paying its share of the price tag. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars that could go to roads and sidewalks and sounder economic investments – instead of this one, substantial gamble.

There was a time – when Charlotte was booming and revenue was flowing in – that the city could afford to take those kinds of risks. The way the dollars are flying out the door, some council members seem to think we’re there again.