Politics & Government

Vote on Raleigh public safety center avoided

The Raleigh City Council sidestepped a scheduled vote today for a new $205 million public safety center because of lingering questions about how to pay for it.

The proposed Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center, a 17-story tower that would replace the current police headquarters on McDowell Street, would house the city's fire and police administration, emergency communications center and technology department.

On Monday, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said he doubted the project would see a vote in light of questions other council members brought up in the past few weeks about the project's funding and whether the scale of the project could be downsized. Instead, council members quizzed staff about the need for the project and specific features, but didn't mention the proposed property tax rate increase to pay for the downtown tower, named in honor of Raleigh's first black mayor, and related projects.

Approving the project would mean a likely property tax increase in the worst local economy since the Depression. Any tax increase wouldn't go into effect in January 2011, at the earliest.

"What I'm really trying to do is get the council to have all its questions answered," Meeker said. The vote "may be later this month."

Acting now will allow the city to save as much as $20 million because of low construction costs and interest rates. However, councilors have heard from citizens who don't want to see their local tax bills go up, and who have questioned whether there is a need to replace the current police and fire facilities with the 17-story structure being proposed.

Even though the city council hasn't given an official nod to approve the building, Raleigh Police Chief Harry P. Dolan is moving ahead with the police department's plans to vacate the 50-year-old building that went up when the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms was on the city council.

The chief said he expects the department to move out of its McDowell Street headquarters by the end of March and into city-owned buildings on Cabarrus Street, where the downtown police precinct will be based, and Six Forks Road, where administrators will be.

Raleigh City Manager Russell Allen has suggested funding the Lightner project, named after Raleigh's first and only black mayor, and $250 million in public works projects through a property tax increase that could amount to an 8 percent rise in the rate, phased in over the next five years. The current $0.375 tax rate for every $100 in assessed value would climb to $0.405. A home with an assessed value of $200,000 would pay $60 more each year, once all three cents proposed by Allen are phased in.

Allen pointed out in a recent council meeting that the city's tax rate has only gone up a cumulative penny in the last 20 years. But taxpayers saw a big jump in what they owed in 2008, when Wake County reevaluated home's values and the average real estate parcel in the county went up 43 percent from their 2000 evaluations.

The city of Raleigh has already invested nearly $21 million of the estimated $205 million project, including purchasing the two properties police are moving into and the design of the new public safety building.

Any decisions about a tax increase would be made in the spring and summer, when Raleigh city councilors hash out their budget.