Mayor Anthony Foxx State of the City Address
February 4, 2013
As prepared for delivery:
Good morning, and thanks to all of you for joining the State of the City.
My fellow residents, I am here to report that Charlotte is coming back – and we’re getting stronger every day. The hard winter of recession has ruined many lives and made the work of our Charlotte City Council difficult. When I took office as mayor in December 2009, unemployment was near a historical high, our housing market was in the tank and many people, here and elsewhere, wondered whether Charlotte had seen its best days. Since that time, our labor force has grown 11.9%, we have 14.4% more people employed and 11.3% fewer people unemployed. Housing prices are 7% higher than this time last year. And, after hosting our largest event in history and showing the world what we’ve done and can do, we have set the table for a bright future.
As your mayor, I serve the most diverse citizenry in our history – Republicans, Independents and Democrats, the young and old, Hispanics and Asians, blacks and whites, the rich, poor and middle-class, straight and gay, people from every walk of life you can imagine. My charge – our charge as a Charlotte City Council – is to ensure that every man, woman and child has a chance to succeed, to fulfill what their talents and abilities can lead them to accomplish.
I am convinced that there is no city in America where we can make this objective more real than Charlotte – and every day we’re getting closer.
Today is the fourth day of Black History Month in a year in which we celebrate the 50th year since the March on Washington and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Today we’re reminded of so many who achieved so much against the odds and who demanded fairness. In doing so, they held the mirror up to our nation and changed the course of history.
They knew that equal opportunity and economic empowerment were both morally right and good economics. They knew that poverty, discrimination and ignorance restrict growth, and that, when you cut people off, it’s not just those who are affected who are hurt. We’re all hurt. Black History Month is a time to remember how far we’ve come together.
If we were to hold the mirror up to our city today, we would see that, for all of our strengths, we lack a galvanizing vision of our community. History, perception and even prejudice could limit our ability to compete for jobs and talented people. We live together, our futures are all connected, and it is time for Charlotte to move forward together. As much as we have achieved, we will do even better when all of our citizens are empowered and vested with a real chance to succeed.
We have a right to be proud of our Central Business District, where more than $1 billion has gone into making it the envy of cities around the world. We have a right to be proud of Ballantyne, one of our most prosperous communities. A generation ago, Ballantyne did not exist but, along with private sector investment, we literally dug pipes in the woods to create a new community. These two examples prove the point that targeted investment can generate strong economic return on investment.
Over my nearly eight years on the Charlotte City Council, we have had difficult decisions over how much to invest and when.
In 2006, the local economy was raging, housing prices skyrocketed and our unemployment rate was much lower. Even so, our roads were crumbling and our crime rate was spiking. Despite a strong economy, the argument was, “Wait, now is not the time.” The “wait” crowd told us that investing in our community would hurt more than help.
That year, seven council members put politics aside and took action to improve public safety, to build new roads, to better maintain old ones, to strengthen neighborhoods and to invest in housing the poor. Together, the Charlotte City Council put 70 new cops on the beat, secured the largest transportation bonds in the history of Charlotte and continued our work in affordable housing.
What’s been the score?
We kept our AAA bond rating at a time when many cities, and even the U.S. government, have lost theirs.
We experienced our lowest crime rate in our city’s history.
We took advantage of some of the lowest interest rates and construction pricing in a generation to build more new roads and improvements than we ever have.
And, because we invested then, we’ve gone without a city property tax increase for nearly seven years.
I would say that’s a pretty good record.
We also see the difference in what that single decision has meant to real people, people like Carl Frank Caldwell.
I met Carl at Moore Place this year, a first-of-its-kind residence for the homeless, supported in part by the city’s housing trust fund. If you meet Carl, who shares responsibilities with me as the mayor of Moore Place, you cannot help but feel his infectious spirit. For much of his life, Carl was a teacher, just like my grandparents. When he fell upon hard times, Carl lost nearly everything – his work, his home, relationships with his family. He lived on Charlotte’s streets for three years – until now.
Because the city invested in Moore Place, Carl has more than a roof over his head; he has found his dignity again. He’s reconnecting with his family, his former students and with his own pride in himself. Any one who doubts the power that a single decision of the Charlotte City Council can transform lives can look at Carl.
Since 2006, I have pushed hard for fiscal restraint in difficult times, and working together, our City Council has taken dramatic steps to avoid raising taxes in difficult times.
We laid off some city workers.
We froze city salaries and positions.
We right-sized our public safety pay plan.
We outsourced recycling.
We shifted capital dollars to operating.
We even reduced the city property tax rate following the recent revaluation.
We lived within our means, not for the few, but in the interest of all of the people we serve.
Along the way, we helped keep our library system in business.
We helped our schools keep effective educators working.
We bought Eastland Mall.
We partnered to develop two funds that will seed innovation and entrepreneurship.
We earned funding to extend our light rail system to UNC Charlotte and to return streetcars to Charlotte for the first time in 50 years.
We broke ground on an intermodal facility at the airport.
We lifted our children by increasing participation in the Mayor’s Youth Employment Program from 48 kids to 3200 with the proud support of companies like Bank of America, which awarded $100,000 to enhance our ability to enrich the lives and lift the ambitions of our young people.
We did all of this – and more – without raising taxes.
Still, if we were to hold the mirror up to our community and speak honestly to our challenges, what would we see?
We would see that the Charlotte region is the fastest-growing region in the United States. If we want to grow population and tax base, we will need new tools to do so. Simply put, how we got here is not how we will get there.
First, growth by annexation is effectively over. For years, Charlotte went without property tax increases because we could grow population and tax base by annexation. The state has restricted annexation, and even if it had not, we had nearly run out of room to grow out anyway. The only way to grow now is by reinventing existing parts of Charlotte to grow new revenue and keep our long-term property tax rates as low as possible. If we do not, future city councils will struggle to pay the bills without frequent tax hikes.
Second, we have a growing disconnect in Charlotte between the haves and have-nots, between our vibrant areas and those in decline. This is not just a Charlotte problem; it is a national one. Still, history, perception and demographic changes and prejudice can no longer serve as excuses for growing poverty, crime, low educational attainment and poor infrastructure in some parts of Charlotte. History, perception, demographics and prejudice allow us to celebrate West End markers or underpass lights or rubber tire trolleys as great accomplishments, while millions of dollars in new housing stock, new employment and new infrastructure pours into neighborhoods in our brighter corners.
Third, the role of federal and state help is changing. Our federal government, overrun with debt and indecision, will play a less helpful role on issues such as housing and infrastructure. In Raleigh, I extend the same outstretched hand that has enabled us to accelerate the completion of I-485 and protect investments in high speed rail funds and reinvent our workforce development system. To the extent that leaders in Raleigh desire to help us achieve our objectives as a local community, we can be counted on as partners. However, we reject “help” inconsistent with local priorities and any effort to perpetuate the so-called “culture of intimidation.” In fact, in the backrooms of Raleigh, there appears to be a serious conversation about removing city control over the Charlotte-Douglas Airport, eliminating revenues we count on to pay for police and fire fighters, and cutting off transit funds. That’s wrong.
Fourth, our old formula will not work – we cannot keep investing where we’re strong and underinvesting where we’re weak. In an earlier generation, we put together multiple dedicated revenue streams to build museums, arenas and hotels. We banded together to make those investments because they lifted the whole. For Charlotte to continue its upward trajectory, we must not only be a good place to visit, we must work to be an even better place to live.
So how do we move forward?
It’s not rocket science. For more than a year, the Charlotte City Council, like Congress, has been stuck in budget deliberations. Last spring, after a record number of budget retreats, the City Council voted down our capital budget – even a majority of the budget committee voted against it. We edged toward our own fiscal crisis and, in the end, left the matter unresolved. We held additional retreats this fall, at the request of the council. In the end, they said they wanted to wait. Soon, we will begin budget deliberations again. While we’re going back and forth, our bond rating agencies are increasingly skeptical that we’ll figure it out.
As our annexation power runs out and the revenue growth that comes along with it, we will find ourselves losing population and economic growth if we cannot transform our economically challenged areas. I remain convinced that transit is a game-changer for Charlotte. Transit is a game-changer.
Along South Boulevard, light rail has resulted in $1.4 billion in private investment. The extension of that line northward is also expected to generate significant development. But the transit sales tax is tapped out. There is no new money on the table, not for a commuter line to Davidson and not for streetcars to East and West Charlotte or the airport. Financially, the rest of our transit plan is dead.
Our efforts to jumpstart the streetcar do not flow from recklessness; they arise out of our recognition that it could be twenty years or more before any new projects get built. Without projects in the ground, we will experience the same sucking sounds of sprawl that will drive investment and population away from Mecklenburg County and Charlotte.
We recognize the need to work together to revive this system. That’s why, as Metropolitan Transit Commission Chair, I have appointed Republican Mayor of Huntersville Jill Swain and Democratic City Councilman David Howard to co-chair a task force to look at our system cost and develop new dedicated funding to pay for it. Eventually, we will need Raleigh’s help, and I am hopeful that Raleigh, and our Governor, will respond.
While they’re working, the Charlotte City Council is still working. We have not taken the streetcar out of the 2030 Transit Plan. We have simply added resources to move it along. Under discussion today is a 2.5-mile portion of streetcar waiting to be built, and communities in East and West Charlotte hungry for economic regeneration. I appreciate Governor McCrory’s longstanding position against it. Since last summer, many business leaders and even City Council members have parroted his sentiments. I have shown charts and graphs and empirical evidence of the transformational power of this project – the single biggest job creator of the entire $926 million package.
With all due respect, the opposition is not about economic impact. Every city in America that has done a modern streetcar has seen a positive economic return. With all due respect, it is not about whether to use property taxes for transit. Since 1998, we have used property taxes for transit. Last year, we increased the use of property taxes for transit to make the Blue Line Extension work. In future years, the Red Line Commuter Rail project funding would use property taxes. There has not been an iota of opposition to these projects. But the streetcar is different. Why?
In our own way, we, all of us, have fallen victim to low expectations. We look at our neighbors in East and West Charlotte, and we cannot bring ourselves to believe that jobs can be created in those corridors, that new housing stock can be built there or that businesses large and small will ever want to go there. If Charlotte were a business, we would have closed those business lines or tried to sell them long ago. That’s the difference between the public sector and the private sector. We don’t have that option. We either make our city better or we let it get worse. I am asking all of Charlotte to choose making our city better.
Let me be clear: this streetcar, and resolving this capital budget, is more important than baseball and more important than football. It is an opportunity to put this city on a path of living together with more opportunity, more economic vibrancy, more quality neighborhoods, more infill development, better schools, more people who want to live here and more businesses who choose to locate here.
My fellow citizens, our future is on the line. We would rather not have to make the choices in front of us. But indecision will not move us forward. Our city is strong – and getting stronger – but we remain in danger of being crushed under the weight of our own success.
Charlotte is a great city – one that remains full of infinite possibilities. We are all in this together. One Charlotte, One Future.