In Charlotte, the rich get richer behind closed doors

Editorial: After months of delay on local improvement projects, City Council holds obscene, closed-door consideration of $125 million Panthers handout

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: January 15, 2013 in Editorial

Photo Credit: DigiDreamGrafix.com, via Flickr. Licensed CC.

Have you ever dreamed of new sidewalks to replace cracked and crumbling pedestrian thoroughfares in your neighborhood? Perhaps you’ve thought the city might repave some of the neglected major roads linking you and your neighbors to your children’s schools, your grocery and drug stores or to recreational facilities. Maybe, just maybe, you once thought local government might take some time to repair and replace old bridges. I bet you even thought that, perhaps one day, the city might increase affordable housing, providing you and your family or maybe some of your friends some relief on ever-increasing rents?

Think again.

All those important needs that affect real people in real families making real wages at middle-income or low-income jobs seem to all come last in the list of priorities Charlotte City Council has for its budget needs, as members of the Council seem utterly fixated on providing exorbitant amounts of public cash on privately-owned, already-successful and already-wealthy businesses.

Last year, the Council chose to spend $8 million from the city’s hotel and motel occupancy tax funds on a new Uptown stadium for the Charlotte Knights baseball team. This time, it’s the Carolina Panthers who are asking for financial aid. On Monday, members of the City Council obliged, meeting behind closed doors to discuss possibly doubling the local prepared food and beverages tax to pay for the $125 million the Carolina Panthers are asking from the city. The money, about two-thirds the original cost to build the privately-owned Panthers stadium, would pay for renovations such as escalators and new video screens.

Obviously, a shiny new Uptown baseball stadium and new escalators and video boards for the Panthers are for more necessary for Charlotte’s health and well-being than are  healthy neighborhoods, new bridges and affordable housing for our residents.

There’s actually two important civic issues at play here.

First is the City Council’s months-long intransigence on a proposed capital improvement plan (read an early draft presentation here). Proposed by now-retired City Manager Curt Walton, the multi-year plan would have reinvested much-needed public funding into long-neglected neighborhoods that have in recent decades seen significant declines in income and infrastructure.

The plan would have included, among other projects, new roads, sidewalks and public transit projects to increase connectivity, new bridges or bridge repairs to increase road safety, new projects to aid in mass transit and increased funding for housing developments designed for those families unable to afford the high average rents plaguing the city. (The Charlotte Observer reported in July that average rents across the city ranged from as low $558 to as high as $1,215, the former and lowest being nearly half of a single parent’s minimum-wage monthly income before taxes.)

Instead of maturely and promptly considering and passing this capital improvement plan, City Council saw fit to devolve into unexpected and silly back-and-forth bickering, ultimately failing to pass any plan at all and recently deciding to dodge the issue yet again by moving postpone any discussion on the matter until next month. It’s likely no real plan could be reached until 2014, long after Council’s upcoming 2013 elections.

And, while Council debates spending more public money on private ventures, Charlotte’s residents and neighborhoods in need of the most assistance continued to be ignored.

The second issue, as equally unfortunate, is the way in which City Council has chosen to go about discussing their funding scheme for the Panthers’ shiny new toys. Council’s Monday meeting discussing the financing plan to use public money for the proposed renovations at the privately-owned stadium was held in closed session.

Yes, you read that correctly. You did not misunderstand. Let me elaborate: A meeting held by elected officials paid by you and elected by you to work for you met in secrecy, using local police force to keep out members of the media, to discuss using public money that should benefit the public for a project that will largely benefit only a small handful of millionaires with ownership stakes in the Carolina Panthers who can already afford to buy their own escalators and new video screens.

And, it’s not the first time. City Council has repeatedly met in closed session on this matter and other similar matters several times.

Critics of naysayers like me will quickly point out that public-private partnerships like these are often paid from the hotel and motel occupancy tax, though this time it’s a possible increase in a tax burden shared mostly by locals that seems to be on the table. They’ll also point out that the Carolina Panthers and other sports teams and attractions boost Charlotte’s reputation and tourism industry, thereby eventually increasing the tax base and helping the local economy. In the end, they’d say, everyone will benefit from a better, more robust local economy.

Partly, they’re right, but the belief that public funds going to private ventures always best benefits everyone isn’t true. Time and time again, governments on the local, state and national level have seen fit to pour obscene amounts of money into private companies. The argument that “we’re all better off in the long run” is always used, but just never quite seems to come into full fruition.

After decades of political and economic neglect, the number of poor families living in low-income neighborhoods has increased 140 percent. Click image to enlarge. Credit: Charlotte Observer analysis as included in city draft capital improvement plan presentation, April 13, 2012.

What about all those billions of dollars, not to count the billions more in secret Federal Reserve loans, banks received before and during the bailout? What did the public get for that? Higher wages? Nope. A stronger financial system? Nope. A promise of a better tomorrow for their children? Nope. Legal and civil penalties for those that caused the financial collapse? Nope.

And, on the local level, big spending by government agencies on private tourist-attracting ventures doesn’t add up either.

With all that money flowing in from regional attractions like sports games and national attractions like conventions and conferences, you’d think that hotel workers are earning a pretty penny for their backbreaking work keeping hotels running smoothly, beds made and toilets cleaned.

But, as documented by writers Dave Jamieson and Joanne Spataro during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the average hourly pay for a hotel worker in North Carolina is $10.05. In Washington, D.C., its $14.79. Housekeepers — you know, all the local folks who make our traveling guests’ stay comfortable and clean — make just $18,780 a year here in Charlotte. In Las Vegas, housekeepers make $28,550. Mainly, the difference here is between non-unionized Charlotte and heavily-unionized cities, but the discrepancy in pay marks  a clear fact: Even if tourism increases and even if wealthy companies become more wealthy, paychecks for the average Joe and Jane aren’t rising, even if their corporate, millionaire employers are making more.

While folks like the owners of the Panthers stadium are primed to get $125 million government handout for new escalators and the owners of the Charlotte Knights will soon kick up their heels in a brand-spankin’ new Uptown stadium, what big plan does the city have to help benefit of all the low-income and middle-income people whose hard work actually makes all this glorious, ritzy Uptown luxury possible?

Council’s answer so far: Nothing.

No better roads. No better and safer sidewalks. No safer bridges. No affordable housing developments. None of that, at least, until we first parse out hundreds of millions of more dollars to people who already have millions in the bank.

City Council’s continued inaction on the capital improvement plan and their shameful secrecy in dealing with arrangements to use public money for private gain is all the proof one needs of a local government and system of well-to-do back-patters gone awry. It’s a social, civic and economic community beholden to private interests at the ultimate harm of average citizens and those in need — a local political culture based not on doing what is best for all, but rather what is best for the few.

Take Action

What do you think of Charlotte City Council’s decision to meet in secret about $125 million in potential funding for the Carolina Panthers’ stadium renovations? Do you think public money should be so readily used to fund private projects by privately-owned companies? Have other thoughts you want to share with your elected officials? Click here to find contact information for your representatives and share your opinions

Ultimately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Our elected officials, many of whom I know have a deep and sincere commitment to issues of social and economic justice, can take steps right now to fix this abhorrent perception of wealth-driven governance. They can stop funding millionaires. They can move forward with a solid and fair capital improvement plan. They can invest in poor neighborhoods. They can support non-profit organizations working to serve the “least of these” among us. They can make a public commitment to transparency, openness and collaboration. They can end the abuse of backroom political and financial shenanigans.

Whether the issue is economic opportunity, transportation, affordable housing, education, immigrant rights, safe neighborhoods or crime, LGBT equality or infrastructure, our elected officials have the opportunity to show real political courage and a fortitude of human spirit by becoming the types of leaders who lead for the whole good of our local community and all the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins that inhabit it.

The options are clear. Will members of the Charlotte City Council let the rich get richer on the backs of citizens, made easy by the free giveaway of public money? Or, will they decide to take a different way, paved with opportunity and blessing for all, balancing the need for larger-scale city-wide growth and tourism with the real-life, daily needs of the constituents they serve? These two paths now lay before them, splitting from that proverbial road we each travel together. It’s time they make a decision.