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Whatever it takes 

Canes win! Taxpayers to face off with John Kane!

On the ground, one day later, Raleigh is absolutely giddy. We are so gosh-darned hip, and masters of our domain, to have conquered this hockey thing in nine years flat. No one else ever thought to stand for an entire Game 7? Just shows our creative class. And we're so nice! We love "O Canada," and Canadians love us--or like us, anyway. As who would not?

I'm not trying to be ironic here. Hockey's such a great game, and much, much better since the rules were changed to free the skaters and arrest the muggers. No offense to basketball, but between the timeouts and the fouls and the other timeouts, the action on the court is, well, pretty limited compared to the way these guys fly up and down the ice.

And yet, when Steve Stroud, a decade ago, proposed to build a 20,000-seat arena out at the fairgrounds that would be big enough to hold not just a basketball floor but a pro hockey rink as well, some people thought he was nuts. Hockey? On Tobacco Road?

I do wish the arena was downtown. (Stroud, Raleigh's real estate magnate, wanted it there too, but N.C. State and Raleigh's City Council--circa the '80s--said no.)

And someday I hope the Wolfpack can go back to playing its games, or most of them, in an air-conditioned Reynolds, which is so much better for hoops.

But in 1997, Stroud was right, and then-Mayor Tom Fetzer and his sidekick Paul Coble, soon to succeed him as mayor, were wrong when they complained that the arena didn't need so many seats, didn't need such big concourses, and should cost less than the final $158 million price tag.

What happened with the Canes is a reminder of what a city--a growing city--is all about. It's about adding new things to our repertoire, to mix with the golden oldies that we also cherish. It's about learning new tricks, about being a place where learning is the primary occupation. It's about doing things the right way, not just the cheap way.

Speaking for myself, I still have some work to do on the definition of boarding, and just what constitutes "roughing" exactly? But as much as Raleigh still loves its basketball, we're on a big-time learning curve when it comes to hockey. Eh?

Two other thoughts. One, I trust that everybody who was shelling out $350 per seat per game for their playoff ducats will be a "yes" vote when the school bond issue is on the ballot in November. Everyone who lives in Wake County, that is. That $350 is about how much the bond will cost you in property taxes each year--if, that is, you own a $750,000 house. For the typical house, it'll cost about the same as a pair of (good) regular-season tickets.

Two, I'm glad that hotel and restaurant taxes paid for the RBC Center (plus the $80 million RBC put up for naming rights). Yes, it's our money, and yes, we could use it to build schools rather than stadiums and convention centers, as some Republican or other periodically reminds us.

But look at it this way. Hotels and restaurants, who are the main beneficiaries when the Canes get hot or the Shriners come to town, are paying a kind of user fee, along with their customers. They're chipping in, out of earnings, so they can have even more earnings.

Meanwhile, if you don't go to the games, you're not getting anything back for your tax money that could've paid for schools, right?

Wrong.

You're getting a city.

And a giddy city at that.

YUP, IT'S ABOUT THE IMPACTS

The Canes mania, meanwhile, knocked the news about higher property taxes in Raleigh and Wake County right off the front page. In Raleigh, the City Council raised them 4 cents on Monday. A few hours earlier, the Wake County Commissioners raised them 3 cents.

Notwithstanding what I just said about well-heeled Canes fans and the bond issue, I can't help but agree with Raleigh Councilor Philip Isley that 4 cents plus 3 cents plus 4-5 cents more for new schools is going to make that bond issue tough to sell. "We're setting ourselves up for a right big sticker shock," Isley said.

That's why, contrary to the notion that an Indy writer must by definition be a big spender, I agreed with Councilor Russ Stephenson's position, which was to vote no on the 4-cent increase.

What surprised me, though, was how easy Isley and the other Republican, Tommy Craven, made it for Stephenson to be in the reasonable middle.

Stephenson's position, in a nutshell, was that voters knew last fall, when they approved by wide margins the two Raleigh bond issues for road improvements and affordable housing, that they were putting themselves in for a 2-cent property tax hike this year.

But, he said, given the county's tax hike and the pending school bond, the city should've limited its own increase to the voter-approved 2 cents; and if more money was needed--as arguably it was, to cover health care cost hikes and higher gasoline prices--it should've come from higher impact fees on developers.

User fees on developers, in other words.

Which, Stephenson did not need to remind anyone, he supported along with Mayor Charles Meeker and Councilor Thomas Crowder, only to be outvoted 5-3 by the two Republicans and the "Jessiecrat" bloc of homebuilder-friendly Democrats--Jessie Taliaferro, Joyce Kekas and James West.

Stephenson's said that, faced with a choice between raising property taxes another 2 cents or cutting the budget, he'd prefer to, ah, reopen the impact-fee discussion. Only Crowder backed him up on that, however. And then Crowder, having wrung the promise of quicker work on the Hillsborough Street improvement project from his nemesis Taliaferro, supplied his four fellow Democrats with the needed fifth vote to pass the 4-cent increase.

But back to the Republicans. A serious proposal from them would've been to limit the tax hike to 2 cents and cut $7 million from the spending side. Not exactly the same as Stephenson's position, but close enough to make things uncomfortable for him.

Instead, however, Isley proposed--and Craven agreed--that there should be no tax hike, and spending slashed $14 million. Which $14 million? They had no idea--Isley vaguely suggested an across-the-board cut, or else City Manager Russell Allen could figure it out for them.

Thus, Stephenson easily voted no on their "proposal," and no as well on the 4-cent increase. Bottom line: Next year, when he runs for re-election to his at-large seat, he can say with a straight face that he did not vote to raise taxes--a position the Republicans handed him on a platter.

At least the Jessiecrats, unwilling to make developers share more of their profits, had the guts--or bad political judgment, call it what you will--to hit the taxpayers up for the dough instead.

That's not the cheap way. But it's not the right way either.

KANE'S PLAN: THE ANTI-IMPACT FEE

Not only did developers escape paying serious impact fees, but now Raleigh's hottest developer, John Kane, wants the taxpayers to subsidize him as he expands his North Hills empire across Six Forks Road to "North Hills East."

Kane's pitch: He'll build a real urban village, to the tune of nearly $700 million of new stuff, but only if the city puts up $75 million, which is the cost--he says--of parking decks with almost 5,500 spaces.

It's that "but only" that's the operative phrase here, because Kane is asking Raleigh and Wake County to use, for the first time in the Triangle, the "self-financing bonds" idea (and there's a name dreamed up by the developers, eh?) that voters statewide OK'd in 2004 when they passed Amendment One.

With this kind of financing--elsewhere called tax-increment financing, or TIF--Raleigh and Wake County would issue bonds and pay them off with the increased property tax revenues they get from the project.

It's supposed to be used, however, in cases where development--or redevelopment--is impossible "but for" the public subsidy. That's why Kane, in colorful notebooks handed out to city officials last week, says that he can't afford to put in the parking decks himself, and "but for" the city building them, he'll either have to sell the land or else build in "typical suburban style--complete with sprawl and fields of asphalt for parking."

Which would be unworthy of a great city like Raleigh, Kane adds. Coincidentally, city leaders who traveled to Minneapolis-St. Paul recently on the annual Chamber of Commerce trip to see what other folks do, were warned by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman that TIF is like "crack cocaine"--as soon as you give it to one developer, every developer starts to treat it like an entitlement, and says they can't possibly make money without it.

St. Paul's overused it to the point that more than 8 percent of its property is TIF'd; Minneapolis is up to 15 percent, Coleman said.

City Manager Russell Allen, who takes such warnings seriously, has opposed every previous (private) pitch for Amendment One treatment, according to Kane's proposal, and he said Monday he's opposed to this one too.

"It's an appropriate public policy debate to have over what the parameters [for using Amendment One] should be," Allen added. Meanwhile, if the council wants to build Kane's decks, it can issue bonds straight-up (as "certificates of participation"), without opening the TIF floodgates, he said.

Write Citizen at rjgeary@mac.com.

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