Mayor proposes new financing plan for safety center

Staff writerFebruary 15, 2010 

Mayor Charles Meeker used his annual State of the City address today to pitch a new funding plan and a lower property tax increase for the $205 million project for the Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center.

Meeker said the building can be built with a penny increase on the city's $0.375 property tax rate, down from the three cent-increase Raleigh City Manager J. Russell Allen has previously recommended.

If Meeker can convince four other council members to agree with him, it would allow the city to go forward with constructing the 17-story Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center, a downtown glass tower that would house the city's police, fire, emergency communications and information technology departments.

The council meets Tuesday and is expected to discuss the Lightner project. Meeker could call for a vote, if he thinks he has the votes.

The project attracted unexpected resistance, with hundreds of emails and letters sent to council members asking them to delay constructing building the project because of the companion tax increase.

Meeker announced the new funding plan during his annual State of the City address, which he gave Monday at Raleigh's Convention Center to members of Raleigh's Rotary Club.

The property tax rate increase Meeker talked about Monday would be phased in over two years, and be on the books for the 25 years it will take the city to pay off the building.

A home assessed at $200,000 value would see an increase of $20 a year under Meeker's financing proposal, and taxpayers wouldn't see any increase until 2012.

Beforehand, Allen suggested raising taxes by 8 percent, a three-cent increase on the tax rate, and lumping the public safety center with $250 million in remote operations projects, including a solid waste services operations center and maintenance facilities for the city's park and sanitation crews. That would have raised the tax bill for a $200,000 home by $60.

Now, Meeker wants to hold off on the public works projects that haven't started and begin building the 17-story public safety center that would be named after Raleigh's first and only black mayor.

Meeker hopes that his new plan will be more palatable to his fellow council members who have wrangled over the fate of the project for several weeks.

But that may be difficult, with the eight-person council split down the middle on whether the city should go forward with the project and three councilors calling for the city to start over.

For the Lightner Center are council members Mary-Ann Baldwin, Nancy McFarlane, James West and Meeker. Against it are Thomas Crowder, Bonner Gaylord, John Odom and Russ Stephenson.

Both Meeker and Allen have said that building now could mean up to $50 million in savings from low construction costs and interest rates because of the economic slump.

The city has already spent at least $22 million of the $205 million project, buying two buildings to relocate the police department to and the cost of the design and pre-construction services. Raleigh Police Chief Harry Dolan is moving ahead with relocating his department, despite not having the official green light from the council, and has said his staff will soon be out of the 50-year-old current police headquarters.

The funding methods of the project, through what are called certificates of participation, has been questioned by conservative political groups who have called for the issue to go before voters.

The Wake County Republican Party and Bob Orr, a former N.C. Supreme Court justice who now heads a state constitutional law center, have said the decision to take on such high amounts of debt should be decided by voters in a general referendum and not by Raleigh City Council members.

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