Our Take: City Council Needs to Get Serious About Budget

In the wake of Monday night’s unexpected 6 – 5 vote against the proposed 2012 budget and $926 million Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), the Charlotte City Council now has just 15 days to regroup and deliver a revised spending blueprint that can garner majority support. If they can’t get the votes, or if the Mayor is serious about his threat to veto a plan he thinks falls short, Charlotte could face the very real possibility of a government shutdown.

It might be time to get serious.

The most surprising thing about the budget negotiations that took place in Council over the past two months is that there weren’t any. Despite being presented with a grab bag of capital projects tailor-made for some old-fashioned horse trading, most council members approached Curt Walton’s CIP as a take-it-or-leave-it affair. Proposals by councilmen Cooksey and Dulin that the projects be voted on individually were ignored, so no serious debate occurred on proposals like the $119 million budgeted for the streetcar extension, the $25 million Bojangles’ Coliseum upgrade or the $35 million cross-county recreational trail.

Had those debates occurred during the budget work session three weeks ago, the Council might have had the chance to ask some of the questions that many citizens have had in mind. Questions like:

  • How many vehicles will a streetcar take off Charlotte’s roads?
  • What’s the expected return on investment for the Bojangles’ redevelopment?
  • Why couldn’t the city pursue public/private TIF financing for the road improvements in the University area, like it did in Ballantyne?

A good legislative process doesn’t forego this type of debate — it demands it. Particularly when the City is proposing to foist an 8 percent tax hike upon its citizens during one of the worst economic downturns in history. It’s hard to believe that Walton and his staff didn’t expect a single project to be cut from this ambitious wish list, and even more unsettling that Mayor Foxx didn’t provide the leadership to produce a slimmed-down CIP that could achieve consensus. Instead, he seemed to assume the Council’s nine Democrats would fall in line and support the plan, neglecting, by some reports, to even pick up the phone and talk with them individually before the vote.

Despite the web of rumors that’s been spun the last few days (the ‘NO’ votes of four Dems were bought in a complicated bargain with the State Senate to kill the Blue Line extension, for instance), it’s more likely that what happened Monday night was that four council members actually listened to their constituents. Since the public hearing two weeks ago,the Council has been assailed with phone calls and e-mails from residents outraged that they would even consider another tax increase after the sizable hike most saw last year through revaluation.

No matter how worthy some of the CIP investments may be, the timing of such a monumental spending plan is indefensible. Councilman John Autry said Monday night that “it’s time for the City to put on a new roof.” But to residents still struggling to pay their mortgages, many of the proposed projects look more like swing sets and new kitchen cabinets. If we can defer those big-ticket items, why can’t our elected officials?

As Council goes back to the drawing board in the coming weeks to come up with a plan that they can agree on, they may want to try tackling the budget the same way most North Carolina households do: figure out what you can afford, and then prioritize your spending appropriately. If that means a new streetcar line, a greenway, or a remodeled sports complex need to wait for better days, so be it. Council members should first come up with a realistic tax rate, then evaluate each individual project on its merits, using reliable data to evaluate its projected return on investment. If there are still some improvements that require a modest tax increase, make the case for each one, proving to residents that they’ve made some hard choices along the way.

Just like the rest of us have to do.

 

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