by Bob Geary
What took them so long? But today, the Wake Republican Party chairman, Claude Pope, called on the Raleigh City Council to hold a referendum on the proposed $205 million, 17-story public safety center. (There's a nice gallery of the architect's renderings up on the N&O's website.) Bonner Gaylord and John Odom, the two new (or in Odom's case, renewed) Council members, have questioned the project since taking office in December. Odom's a Republican; Gaylord, officially unaffiliated, came in with a lot of Republican backing. There are a bunch of issues surrounding the plan -- the cost, the location, the wisdom of tearing down an existing building so it can be replaced with a giant tower on-site -- but whether the Council should decide them or let the public in iit hasn't been part of the equation until now.
No one, to my knowledge, is doubting the need to replace the old public safety center -- including Claude Pope. Still, it never hurts to check with the voters on big-ticket projects, if only just to show them you care. If borrowing $205 million is such a good idea -- as City Manager Russell Allen and Mayor Charles Meeker say it is now that interest rates are at historic lows -- surely the voters will see its wisdom too, no? Or maybe it isn't such a good idea, and not because a new center isn't needed, but rather that it's the wrong building or it's in the wrong place or it's just the wrong year to be reaching into the public pocket.
If the city planned to issue general obligation bonds to pay for the project, under the state constitution it would need the voters' OK. Instead, however, it plans to issue "certificates of participation," which are just like G.O. bonds except that they're not due to a legalistic fatuity dreamed up by the bond lawyers and their good friends in the various legislatures of America. The theory of a C.O.P. is that if Raleigh should fail some day to pay on the bonds, rather than go bankrupt, Raleigh would turn the building over to the bondholders -- the "participants," as it were. Yeah, right.
The real purpose of C.O.P's, back in the day, was to avoid the voters while drawing on their credit anyway, albeit at a slightly higher interest rate for them to repay. Yes, I know everybody does it; but you know what your mother said about that.
Assuming, as I believe is the case, that Gaylord and Odom support a referendum, and Meeker and fellow Democrats Mary-Ann Baldwin and James West don't, and are ready to approve the tower, that means two of the three other Council members would have to join the Gaylord-Odom bandwagon to force the question to the ballot.
(Or it may be that if four Council members insist on a public vote, the project will be postponed or relocated out of fear the voters would say no.)
The GOP press release is below the fold.
WAKE COUNTY GOP SAYS TAXPAYERS SHOULD HAVE FINAL WORD ON CONSTRUCTION OF PROPOSED 17-STORY BUILDING
RALEIGH, N.C. – January 8, 2010 – Wake County Republican Party Chairman Claude E. Pope, Jr. is strongly urging the Raleigh City Council not to commit to the construction of a new $205 million, 17-story public safety center without giving voters a chance to consider both the design and method of financing the project.
Pope urged the council to consider using a bond referendum for new building construction. That would give taxpayers the final word on whether to proceed with the project. Mayor Charles Meeker wants to finance construction through Certificates of Participation, which he admits would result in an 8% tax increase. Meeker has said that moving now to construct the building will save money, but Pope believes that contention is dubious, noting that capital spending backed by bond referenda typically results in lower interest rates.
“The City of Raleigh already has substantially more debt than any other local taxing unit in North Carolina -- more than seven billion dollars as of June 30, 2008, whereas the next highest is only about $4.5 billion," Pope said.
“How much is enough?” he asked. “How much is too much?”
The Republican chairman also noted that important questions about the building’s design remain, including proposed inclusion of luxury office suites with private bathrooms, which have been questioned by some council members. “The police and other public safety officials should have cutting edge technology and the utmost in functionality. I would not begrudge these vital public servants anything that allows them to execute their difficult assignments more effectively,” Pope said. But he also wondered whether the luxury suites, even if justifiable, would wind up being occupied by politicians instead of public safety officials, and noted that an overly extravagant and expensive design could wipe out any savings in interest “even if the Mayor is right about interest rates, which I strongly question,” Pope added.
Pope also wondered whether, given Mayor Meeker's history of spending on downtown, his 17-story plan isn't motivated as much by a desire to add to the Raleigh skyline as it is to provide necessary new facilities for the police department.
“Let the people have the final word,” Pope said. “Raleigh taxpayers deserve to have their voices heard in an official and fair capacity like a bond referendum. If the council puts forward a sound proposal, they should not fear the judgment of the voters who put them in office in the first place. Openness and transparency are always preferable to decisions made otherwise.
“The council needs to consider all approaches on how to meet the increased public safety needs of the city. Proceeding with the construction of such a costly building in haste is no way to be fiscally responsible,” Pope concluded.