RALEIGH — The Raleigh City Council pushed off a vote Tuesday on a $205 million project to build a new public safety center and instead peppered staff with questions about the 17-story downtown tower.
But the council didn't talk about the project's most controversial aspect - how to pay for it.
If the council decides to give a green light and build the Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center, named after Raleigh's first and only black mayor, it would also mean approving a tax increase in the worst local economy since the Depression.
The financing proposal outlined by City Manager Russell Allen would raise property taxes by 8 percent over the next five years and include $250 million in public utility projects as well as the price tag for the Lightner center. The owner of a home with an assessed value of $200,000 would see the annual tax bill go up $60 once the entire tax increase is phased in.
Council members decided to revisit the project at their Jan. 19 meeting. At Tuesday's meeting, council members asked how many people the construction would employ - an estimated 1,200 to 1,800 - and how the city would ensure getting the best prices for construction work.
But no mention of the financing came until the end of the discussion, when Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker remarked that the only real question was whether the designed building was the right one.
"The last question is how you pay for it and at what cost," said Thomas Crowder, who represents Central and West Raleigh neighborhoods.
At the earliest, a property tax increase to pay for the tower wouldn't go into effect until January 2011.
If built, the new public safety center will house the city's police and fire administration, the emergency communications staff and the city's information technology departments. The $205 million price tag includes the cost of buying and retrofitting two buildings for police to relocate to as well as all the furniture and costly technology that would go into the new public safety center, Allen said.
Plans are to tear down the four-story Raleigh police headquarters, built 50 years ago to serve as a municipal building, to make room for the new, energy-efficient building at 110 S. McDowell St.
Despite not having the official OK from the City Council, Raleigh Police Chief Harry P. Dolan is moving forward with plans to have his staff vacate the current building by the end of March and move into two city-owned buildings on Cabarrus Street and Six Forks Road.
At Tuesday's meeting, Dolan told council members that the present police headquarters building doesn't come close to meeting his department's needs. The new building would offer improved safety features like blastproof walls and separate entrances for crime suspects and the general public, he said.
Council member Nancy McFarlane, who hasn't revealed how she stands on the issue, said she's heard from constituents in her North Raleigh district who have told her "we need it, but we don't need a Taj Mahal."
Before Tuesday's council meeting, three council members, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, James West and Mary-Ann Baldwin, said they wanted to move forward with plans to build the center to take advantage of low interest rates and construction costs that could translate to as much as $20 million in savings. Three others, Crowder, Bonner Gaylord and John Odom opposed it, because of financing concerns. Gaylord also wanted to see whether the current building being used as police headquarters could be preserved.
The remaining council member, at-large councilor Russ Stephenson, said he hadn't decided where he stands on the issue.
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