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Unscrambling Arena Money Rhetoric

Property taxes, arenas, and other possibilities

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Over the last two weeks, elected officials' rhetoric about their latest arena deal has changed almost daily. It began with promises that no property taxes would be used to pay for the arena. Then, when the city staff came back to the Charlotte City Council with a new deal that did include property taxes two weeks ago, council members almost immediately changed their rhetoric to "the deal would not cause a property tax hike."

At the time, the story as reported in the media was that $26.5 million of the $231 million deal would come from the city's general fund, about half of which is property tax money.

Then last Monday, the rhetoric changed once again. Technically, the money used for the arena would come from a capital reserve fund, not straight out of the general fund, city officials explained. The money in the reserve fund comes from the general fund and other sources, and about a third of it is property tax money.

So, said City Manager Pam Syfert at last week's council meeting, council members could technically say that no property tax is being used because the fund the city would use to pay for the arena included not just property taxes, but other funds like revenues from the sale of city assets. So council members could say they were using the proceeds from the sale of city assets to pay for the arena, not property taxes. At deadline, no proceeds from the sale of city assets had yet been dog-eared as the "source" of the arena funds.

"So property taxes won't be used," Mayor Pat McCrory immediately said to the media after Syfert's explanation.

"It's a shell game," council member Don Lochman still says a week later. Either way, it changes the list of things the city could use the money for if it didn't go toward an arena, an issue that has caused a lot of confusion in the general public.

Basically, the money to pay for the new dome would come from two pots. The first, a revenue stream that could generate about $80 million of the city's arena funds, contains no property taxes and must be used by state law to pay for tourism and tourist-related attractions. The money in this pot comes from the hotel-motel tax, which the hotel industry agreed to several years ago to help build tourist attractions and attract visitors.

The $26 million from the second fund, the capital reserve fund, wasn't intended by council to be used to pay ongoing costs, but was meant as a back-up savings to help the city through unforeseen financial crises. Once the city met its savings goals, which it has, additional money in the fund could be used for permanent capital improvements, like new buildings or sidewalks.

So what else could the city put the pseudo-property tax money toward besides the arena? Just about anything you can think of that doesn't breathe, and a few things that do. Those include:

* Sidewalks

* Physical resources like computers for the financially deprived court system

* Improvements to the city's most blighted neighborhoods

* Traffic calming/slowing devices

* Improvements to the city's most dangerous intersections

* Fixing/improving city and state roads

* Uptown water park

* Renovation of Discovery Place

* A new Mint Museum of Art

* Expansion of the Afro-American Cultural Center

* An aquarium

* A minor league baseball stadium

* A tree-planting and replacement program

* Shelter for the homeless

* Pay off city debt

* One-time capital donation to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to build or expand schools

* Equipment for the police and fire departments

* Expansion of the animal shelter

* Save it for a rainy day

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