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Mad Meeker

Two Wake County election issues: How much? And who pays?

It was like somebody ripped the bandage off the Raleigh City Council Tuesday, exposing the deep tear that separates the pro-developers majority from the pro-taxpayers minority. Of course, that's not the way the five-member majority wanted the issue of impact fees to be seen--as developers versus taxpayers. So they were visibly angry at Mayor Charles Meeker and his two allies, Russ Stephenson and Thomas Crowder, for calling them out over it. And make no mistake: Meeker, normally so determined to "govern from the middle" and find consensus, was calling them out. What the majority was doing, Meeker said loudly, was "simply not fair" to their constituents.

Yes, I said loudly. Soft-spoken Charles Meeker was pissed.

And on the other side, so was Councilor James West, who represents Southeast Raleigh, the city's poorest district. West clearly didn't like it when Meeker & Co. pointed out that his vote was sticking it to the city's low-income residents while favoring McMansion buyers in the 'burbs.

"Hours and hours" had been wasted on this one unimportant issue, West declared, to the detriment of many others. But what was he talking about? The issue was not given so much as a single committee hearing, not by the planning commission (which received it last week and promptly voted to get rid of it), and certainly not by the council, which voted 5-3 on Tuesday against letting any committee hear testimony about it before they adopted, also by a 5-3 vote, the developers' position.

Let's do justice to the developers' side. Their case was put well by Councilor Philip Isley, a Republican. Isley doesn't like impact fees. The fact that Raleigh's fees hadn't been increased in 17 years didn't bother him at all. He thinks Raleigh's low fees and low taxes are the reason it's growing so fast. Ditto Republican Tommy Craven, who said impact-fee proponents just don't understand the damage they could do to the local economy.

Craven was especially irked at Stephenson's argument that since builders' fees only pay about 10 percent of the cost of infrastructure (roads and parkland) associated with new developments, either the money needed for improvements to existing neighborhoods was getting drained or else everybody's property taxes were going up--or both.

"The people on the edge [of the city] have been subsidizing the downtown for years," Craven shot back.

So ended, for the time being anyway, the battle over impact fees. But the war over growth will continue. Raleigh is building itself quite a backlog of transportation, park, water-supply and water-treatment costs, and the faster it grows, the bigger the backlog gets.

And that's to say nothing of the effect Raleigh's growth--and Wake County's--is having on the public schools, which is a county responsibility. The more growth, the more classes are held in trailers. And the more county taxes go up. That'll be our subject next week, as we tune into the war over impact fees, or the lack of them, to support Wake's schools, and how it's pushing the debate toward mandatory year-round schools instead.

At Meeker's insistence, the Raleigh Council hired an expert consulting firm, Duncan & Associates, from Austin, Texas, to study the impact-fee question. It came back with a report saying that Raleigh's fees were so low, it could raise them five-fold and still be within the legal limit.

By state law, fees are limited to one-half of eligible road and parkland costs, with taxpayers responsible for the rest. Half would've meant raising the fee on a new single-family house in Raleigh, for example, from the current $682 to about $3,400--still well below the national average, according to Duncan.

Meeker didn't even want to go that far. He proposed asking developers to pay about one-third, meaning the fee on a one-family house would rise to about $2,400, a bit less than Cary's. Taxpayers would still pay two-thirds, he noted.

He also joined Stephenson and Crowder in arguing for graduated fees based on the size of the house--higher on McMansions, in other words--and for exempting "affordable" houses entirely.

But the five-member majority, including West, the supposed champion of affordable housing, voted instead to adopt Councilor Jessie Taliaferro's plan, backed by the developers, for a flat increase to just $1,173 per house. (Fees on other kinds of buildings will also go up accordingly.)

Three Democrats--Taliaferro, West and Joyce Kekas--joined the two Republicans in smiting Meeker's plan. Forget 6-2 Democrats. On growth issues, which are the issues in Raleigh, the Raleigh Council is 5-3 in favor of the developers.


On the subject last week of Chris Mintz, a candidate for the Democratic nomination in N.C. House District 41, I garbled and misreported one thing Frank Williams said to me. Williams, Mintz's friend when they were both Republicans, told me he'd helped reserve a table for Mintz at an N.C Family Policy Council dinner last year, something Mintz denies. Williams did indeed say that, and stands by it. But Williams did not say that he saw Mintz at the dinner. I misunderstood him and overlooked what he said in a note to me following our conversation, which is that Mintz worked with him on filling the table but then, at the last minute, something came up and Mintz couldn't go.

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