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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Charlotte Center City: South End Taxes vs Uptown Lobbying

Historic South End Sends $500K To Center City Partners, But What's It Getting?

Two of Charlotte’s oldest, richest and most historic neighborhoods are engaged in a kind of behind-the-scenes, tug-of-war over tax dollars generated by special municipal tax districts.

The dispute arose after the Historic South End merged with uptown’s Center City Partners. Now some South End property owners complain their tax dollars are going to promote uptown rather than their own neighborhood.

“Their priorities are uptown,” said Wayne Powers, who ran a tea shop in the South End called “Tea Rex.” “They took us on as a poor cousin. Oh yeah, you can be in the club but sit in the balcony.”

Powers accuses Center City Partners of merging with the South End “…to expand their power base; It’s not where their commitment lies.”

The special “municipal service districts” were created more than 30 years ago by state lawmakers to allow main street businesses to tax themselves to boost development. Charlotte has five of the districts – three overlapping in uptown, one in the South End and one in the University City area.

The South End will generate more than $560,000 in special taxes from its service district this fiscal year, according to the city’s Department of Neighborhoods and Special Services. But according to documents provided by Center City Partners in the last year the group spent less than half that amount, or about $273,000, directly on the South End.

The remainder goes to administrative costs at Center City Partners, which in turn raises a quarter million dollars in private grants and sponsorships, a portion of which goes to the South End.

Administrative employees spend a portion of their time working on South End projects but do not report their time by district.

When Center City Partners began lobbying for a million dollars in local taxpayer funding for a public market uptown at the site of the former Reid’s Fine Foods, some South End property owners took it as a slap in the face. South End already hosts a fledgling public market in Atherton Mill without taxpayer funding.

“If these uptown financial wizards want an uptown lobbying group, let ‘em do it with their own money,” said Powers.

But Michael J. Smith, the CEO of Center City Partners, says his organization provides a valuable service for the South End.

“We have a unique program of work for uptown and a unique program of work for South End,” said Smith. “Those dollars by statute have to be invested in that district.”

Smith says Center City Partners can promote public markets in both uptown and the South End at the same time.

“We do represent Atherton Market. We're big fans of the market. We promote the market,” said Smith, adding that the proposed uptown public market is “something different.”

“You know what?” counters Powers. “If I were making $350,000, I’d come up with that kind of story too.”

Powers is referring to Smith’s salary, $88,000 bonus and benefits totaling $347,000 this year, recently reported by WCNC’s news partners at the Charlotte Observer.

Some South End property owners complain that inequities were built into the structure of the merger. The Historic South End contributes about 18 percent of the property taxes which support Center City Partners but gets only 8 percent of the votes on CCCP’s board of directors, holding only two of 25 voting seats.

Tony Pressley, a developer who led the way in turning Charlotte’s oldest industrial district into a distinct neighborhood of condos and design centers.

“Two board positions; that’s not adequate,” said Pressley.

Pressley says it’s time for his neighbors to re-evaluate the merger.

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Sources: WCNC, Charlotte Center City Partners, Google Maps

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