News: CJ Exclusives

City Leader: Local Politics Can Be Tricky

Raleigh city councilman comments on taxes, transit

RALEIGH—Local politics, usually dealing with everyday occurrences such as trash pickup and parking concerns, can be surprisingly controversial, Raleigh City Councilman Neal Hunt said Monday.

Hunt is no stranger to controversy. He opened his remarks to the John Locke Foundation with a prayer, explaining that he disagrees with contemporary interpretation of separation of church and state. Controversy around local issues does not often stem from political differences, but arguments about which policies are best for communities, he said.

Hunt said he personally believes in lower taxes, less government, local control of policy issues, and environmental protection. Because keeping Raleigh beautiful is important for the economy and for attracting new business, protecting the environment and remaining fiscally conservative are not contradictory positions, he said.

Among improvements to the city Hunt mentioned is a proposal to build a convention center in downtown Raleigh. In a nearly unanimous vote, a Convention Center Task Force recommended spending $175 million to build the 500,000-square-foot center. By comparison, Charlotte’s center, built five years ago, occupies one million square feet and cost the city $150 million.

Hunt said council members must determine whether the project makes economic sense before making a decision. “Will this convention center bring in enough new business to pay for the 1 million dollar deficit plus the debt service for constructing the project?” Hunt asked.

If the council does begin the project, Hunt said, he wants to find the best way to do it, perhaps including retail locations around the perimeter of the center to attract additional business.

The council is also considering giving subsidies to a developer to build a downtown hotel, which the task force deems vital to the success of a convention center. However, Hunt said, the council must consider issues of fairness to other hotels in the area and constitutional bans on using public money for private purposes.

It is unfair, and constitutionally dubious, to subsidize one hotel when other hotels get no help from the city, he said. Perhaps the council can use the Progress Energy model to aid the hotel, without giving it taxpayer money, Hunt said. When Progress Energy came to Raleigh, the city financed a nearby parking deck and collected the profits for parking.

Hunt also recounted the controversy surrounding a proposed law that would have limited the number of unrelated people living in a single-family dwelling. The city attorney recommended the law, Hunt said, but the council did not expect the vehement opposition from students and property owners that the proposal aroused.

Hunt said he understood both sides of the issue. Homeowners renting their property want the right to rent to whomever they choose; other property owners in the same neighborhoods want the right to privately enjoy their property without having noisy or disruptive neighbors, Hunt said.

Hunt named several other controversial City Council projects, including the rerouting of traffic around Peace College, the possible expansion of an Islamic Mosque on Beryl Road and accompanying parking changes, and a pilot program reducing trash and recycling pickup from twice weekly to once weekly for 5,000 Raleigh residents.

Hunt fielded several questions about possible plans for mass transit in Raleigh. “Unfortunately, the cow is already out of the barn,” Hunt said. Raleigh ceded its authority on mass transportation to the Triangle Transit Authority several years ago.

Ashley is an editorial intern at Carolina Journal.