Raleigh mayor has grand plans

Meeker wants to forge ahead with capital projects, charting course for future growth.

Staff writerNovember 30, 2009 

— Getting through the recession in a way that will leave Raleigh poised for growth will be a major focus of the incoming City Council.

Today marks the beginning of Charles Meeker's fifth - and likely final - term as mayor, and he plans to reveal a list of lofty goals for the next two years. They include a push for the city to continue with already-budgeted capital projects, build a new public safety building in downtown and improve the city's public transportation system.

"This year, it seems like the recession is never going to end," Meeker said.

Raleigh and the Triangle area have been a darling of national "best of" lists for years, and the city needs to continue to grow smartly in order to keep that edge, Meeker said.

The council he'll work with for the next two years will be a more moderate group than the previous council, where Meeker had a comfortable majority to work with.

Raleigh's new council will be sworn in at 7 tonight at the Raleigh Convention Center and will add newcomer Bonner Gaylord, a politically unaffiliated general manger of Kane Realty Corporation's North Hills who won Philip Isley's council seat, and John Odom, a conservative former councilman who reclaimed his seat after defeating Rodger Koopman in October's election.

Returning council members are Mayor Pro-Tem James West, Mary-Ann Baldwin, Thomas Crowder, Nancy McFarlane and Russ Stephenson.

"Everyone on the council has the same goals," McFarlane said. "It's going to be a matter of working together well."

Some of Meeker's priorities are echoes from his past "To Do" lists: trying to transform the state-owned Dorothea Dix property into a public park, promoting water conservation, bettering the city's public transportation system and looking at bringing more passenger rail options to the area.

Meeker plans to meet with Gov. Bev Perdue in early December to discuss Dix, and he's optimistic that a plan to turn the hilltop acreage into a park will be workable.

But Meeker also wants the city to continue with budgeted projects, which include park and greenway improvements, traffic light synchronization on Capital Boulevard and other city thoroughfares, as well as multiple road projects.

"It's the right thing to do in a recession," Meeker said. "That would employ hundreds of people."

Unemployment in the Raleigh-Cary area was 8.6 percent in September, lower than the state rate of 10.4 percent but an increase from previous months, according to the latest statistics from the N.C. Employment Commission.

Debt payments for those capital projects make up 29 percent of the city's nearly $700 million budget for the current fiscal year.

But while the city weighs a lengthy wish list of projects, the economic climate will play a major part in determining what can be done. Odom, who once unsuccessfully ran against Meeker for mayor, said he plans to focus on the budget to see if money is being spent wisely given the shaky economy.

"There are a lot of wants that are going to pop up early," Odom said. "I hope we'll be frugal."

Several issues from the past, including water conservation, will also have to be dealt with. Falls Lake, which provides drinking water for Raleigh and several surrounding communities, is full but last year's drought emphasized the need for long-term solutions, McFarlane said.

"Some of the top issues are going to be water and supply and quality," McFarlane said. "Growth is always an issue and in difficult economic times we want to make the city grow."

The council won't waste any time in broaching that topic. After tonight's swearing in, they'll be back together again Tuesday for their first official council meeting.

sarah.ovaska@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4622

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