Taxpayers to pay for public safety center?

January 7, 2010 4:03:13 AM PST
In Raleigh, the debate is on about plans for a new public safety center and how to pay for it.City officials are now trying to clarify a lower sticker-price.

It's $140 million for the 17-story building instead of the $205 million originally projected, but others say that's still a staggering price tag.

The current police department headquarters would be demolished to make way for a new tower for police, fire, and 911 dispatch.

But how to pay for it all and who should really decide - an elected city council or Raleigh voters themselves - are all up in the air.

Raleigh's mayor says the recession is an opportunity to build the building at a bargain. With interest rates and construction costs low, he wants the city council to act.

"It's one that needs to be made," Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said. "And successful cities make these decisions and move forward."

But some city leaders are concerned about raising property taxes, even if it's only by $20 on the average home the first year.

If property taxes alone funded the new building, the average property tax bill would go up $60 over three or four years.

Councilmember Russ Stephenson suggests actually borrowing more money to delay debt payments for a couple of years, until the economy improves.

"There would be less of a need, if there is a need, to raise property taxes three to five years from now," Raleigh City Council Russ Stephenson said.

Raleigh's police chief said the number of officers might double over the next two decades.

Stephenson says homebuilders should also pay higher impact fees to help pay for a safety center that's needed to meet the growth.

"Impact fees pay for about a third of the cost of roads and parks," Stephenson said. "They don't pay anything for police stations. They don't pay anything for fire stations."

Some council members also wonder if the public should decide directly, at the ballot-box.

"I think it would be a very tough vote," Stephenson said.

The mayor says the council itself should decide on projects, which are vital to public safety. But he says the city also has the current recession in mind.

"It's going to try to have something that's very sensitive to our residents' current situation," Meeker said. "And of course many of our residents are currently unemployed."

Raleigh's city manager hopes the city council will approve the project at the next city council meeting in about two weeks.

He also stresses any property tax increase would also help pay for 120 acres of other facility needs around the city.

If voters decided, approval would not happen until a November election.

The mayor thinks that could cost the city an extra $20 to $50 million if interest rates go up between now and then.

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