Does this sound familiar? Democrats win a resounding election victory but soon split over their leader’s top legislative initiative. Months of stalemate ensue as warring Democrats argue whether the plan is too expensive and, if so, what parts of it are driving up the price. Some want tweaks. Some want to junk it and start over.
Meanwhile, the Republicans hoot and holler about wasteful government spending, especially with people out of work. Their big issue in the fall elections: The leader’s x&%y#st!c plan, so emblematic of the Democrats’ propensity for overborrowing.
We could be talking about President Obama and health care reform. But that particular fall election is past, and the Democrats were on the receiving end of, in Obama’s term, a “shellacking.” No, this is about Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and his plan for the 17-story, $205 million Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center on the north side of Nash Square, where the current police headquarters is located. The idea was for a single administrative headquarters for all police, fire and emergency operations officials and staff. For a year, the proposal has gone nowhere. But it hasn’t gone away.
While it has festered, Republicans in Raleigh have used the Lightner issue to collect more than 5,000 signatures on petitions intended to trigger a special citywide referendum on public borrowing. Organized by the Wake County Taxpayers Association, the petition drive is officially nonpartisan, but its leaders include such notable Republicans as WCTA President Russell Capps, a former state legislator. Capps told the Indy that within a few days his group plans to submit the petitions to the Wake County Board of Elections, which will determine the validity of the signatures. The petitions call for a vote to prevent the city, by charter amendment, from borrowing money unless it’s part of a voter-approved bond issue. The only exception would be for the refinancing of bonds that were previously voter-approved.
Capps said Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters were all equally willing to sign the petitions when he and other WCTA supporters approached them at the polls during the recent midterm elections. “We did a survey,” he said. “There’s no partisan difference on this [issue].”
Legally, the effect of the WCTA’s petitions is uncertain. According to City Attorney Tom McCormick, organizers have misunderstood the requirements for putting the question of public borrowing to a citywide referendum. Anthony Pecoraro, a WCTA board member who’s working with Capps, believes that 5,000 signatures is sufficient under a state law that details the referendum process for changing some aspects of local government. But, McCormick says, in this case, a referendum process unique to the Raleigh charter would apply; it calls for 10 percent of the registered voters, or roughly 25,000 signatures, to put the public borrowing question on a ballot.
If the legal status of the petitions is murky, however, their political status is clear: In 2011, the GOP wants to put the Lightner Center into the annals of city elections alongside the controversial Light + Time Tower (1995) and the first, failed convention center plan, put forth in 1993. These unpopular public projects were approved or proposed by the Democrats in Raleigh and then used by the Republicans to win sweeping victories the next time out at the polls.
Meeker, meanwhile, indicated in an e-mail to the Indy that, for the first time, he’s willing to consider major changes to the Lightner project, including looking at different locations and putting the emergency operations functions in a separate building.
In 2009, Meeker’s Democrats dominated the city elections, winning five seats on the eight-member councilsix if you count Nancy McFarlane, who is unaffiliated but usually follows Meeker’s lead. Councilor Bonner Gaylord, also unaffiliated, has staked out a middle ground during his first year in office. Ditto for John Odom, the only Republican member.
However, on the Lightner issue, Meeker has been held to a 4-4 tie, with McFarlane and Democrats Mary-Ann Baldwin and Eugene Weeks on his side, but Democrats Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson joining Gaylord and Odom in opposition.
Opponents object mainly to the high cost of the project, which, as initially proposed, was nearly $700 per square foot for a 300,000-square-foot office building, albeit one for public safety administrators.
Pecoraro compared it to the new CapTrust office building at North Hills, which is similar in scale and has an assessed value of about $140 per square foot.
The high cost was largely due to the center’s emergency-operations functions, including critical communications systems, which would be located on the top floors of the Lightner building. Because these operations must withstand a natural disaster or terrorist bombing, putting them atop the building required expensive hardening of the entire 17-story structure.
The emergency operations couldn’t go on the ground floors, Stephenson says, because such a facility is supposed to be off-limits to the public.
Stephenson, an architect, has argued all year that the emergency operations should be located in a separate, bunker-style building somewhere off the beaten tracknot right on Nash Square, next door to City Hall.
He also maintains that the old police HQ, which sits on less than one acre, is too small for the remaining police and fire functions. Putting them there, Stephenson says, means space for all future expansion must be included in the initial building, since the entire site will be occupied once it’s finished.
Finding a larger site would save money, Stephenson says, by allowing the city to start with a cheaper mid-rise building and add to it as the city growsand as its finances improve with the economy. “We don’t want to build a public safety center now that’s so expensive, we can’t afford the people to work in it,” he says.
Picking an alternate location could also forestall tearing down the old police building, which Stephenson, Crowder and Gaylord think might be sold for renovationwith tax creditsby a private developer.
Meeker responded that he’s “willing to talk about options on the location of the center or separation of the IT/911 [emergency] facilities,” as long as the project costs don’t go up and it would attract that “elusive” fifth council vote. This suggests that Stephenson and his allies may be on the brink of breaking through.
Where the center might move, however, is an open question. Stephenson has recently pushed the idea of buying a vacant seven-acre site on New Bern Avenue a few blocks east of downtown that is owned by the Raleigh Rescue Mission. Buying it would help the mission do its work, he says, and could also lead to needed economic development on a portion of the site and the rest of the New Bern Avenue corridor.
Stephenson noted that the city is beginning a corridor-planning study for the part of New Bern Avenue from Swain Street, where the mission site is located, to WakeMed Hospital. Public meetings starting on Dec. 2 will give residents a chance to weigh in on the mission site as a potential Lightner Center location, he said.
Meeker, though, said the mission property is designated for residential development in the city’s comprehensive plan. Councilor Weeks, who represents Southeast Raleigh, does not support it for the Lightner project.
Because the Lightner project is to be named for the city’s only African-American mayor, its location is a sensitive topic in Southeast Raleigh, where black leaders have fought to put it on the prominent Nash Square site.
Claude Pope, who was chair of the Wake County Republican Party until he resigned on Monday, says that regardless of location, “the bottom line is that it’s just not a good time to be building something like this. With the economy the way it is, it’s a good time to tighten our belts.”
Pope was one of the first critics of the Lightner plan and the first to call for a public vote on it.
Pope is considered a possible candidate for mayor in 2011. He said Monday he’s “not at a point where I can make a decision about that,” but he didn’t rule out running. Regardless he said, a Republican would take on Meeker if he runs for re-election. If Meeker doesn’t run, the field would be wide open and five or six candidates could be in it.
In Democratic circles, the operating assumption is that Meeker won’t seek a sixth term, though he said Monday he’ll decide in April or May.
Among his allies, McFarlane is considered most likely to run. Unless the Lightner issue is resolved, Stephenson says, it “absolutely” will be an issue in the elections and a tough one for the pro-Meeker side to deflect. “If we can’t sell a public safety center that the city needs that is done in a reasonable, cost-effective manner,” Stephenson says, “I would expect the voters to be very concerned about that, yes.”