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Raleigh council again debates safety center with no resolution

Raleigh City Council members continued to spar Tuesday on the cost of a planned public safety center downtown but again failed to bring the project to a vote.

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Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center
RALEIGH, N.C. — Raleigh City Council members continued to spar Tuesday on the cost of a planned public safety center downtown but again failed to bring the project to a vote.

The council has discussed the Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center at two consecutive meetings and agreed to bring the subject up again at the Feb. 2 meeting. Council members said they plan to solicit feedback from the public in the coming weeks.

The 300,000-square-foot center, which is projected to cost $205 million, would sit at the current site of the Raleigh Police Department at the corner of McDowell and Hargett streets. It would house the city's police and fire departments, as well as its 911 operations center and other emergency services.

"This building is more expensive than a regular office building," Mayor Charles Meeker said, noting it would include state-of-the-art technology and would be built to withstand major storms and the potential of a terrorist attack.

Noting Councilman John Odom recently compared the building to a Rolls Royce because of its amenities, Meeker said it's more like a fire truck because it would be designed to meet a special purpose. He said the center should have been built 10 years ago and called it "critical" to the well-being of local residents.

Some council members, including Odom, have said some features of the 16-story building could be eliminated to trim costs, while others have suggested renovating the current police department headquarters.

Paying for a new building would likely require the city to raise property taxes for several years.

"I don't think anyone wants to put any more burden on the taxpayers," Councilman Russ Stephenson said.

Odom asked whether the city could put the project on the ballot later this year as a bond referendum, but Meeker and City Manager Russell Allen pressed to move forward with the project, noting interest rates and construction prices are low because of the slow economy.

"Who is going to write our taxpayers a check for $20 (million) to $30 million if interest rates go up?" Meeker said. "The answer is no one."

Allen said the city could hold off on raising the property tax rate until January 2012 to allow time for the economy to recover before an increase would take effect.

"You don't have to approve the allocation of a penny (property tax) in the next year," he said.

Revenue from sources like utilities fees could pay for initial expenses on the project until the property tax increase kicks in, officials said.

Noting that construction of the building could create 1,800 jobs, Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said the city needs the economic boost the project would offer.

"If we're participating in creating jobs, we're doing a service for the residents," said Baldwin, who noted that she recently lost her marketing job.


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