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Foxx, Lassiter debate streetcar as they try to distinguish themselves

Charlotte mayoral candidates (from left) Anthony Foxx and John Lassiter.

Charlotte mayoral candidates Anthony Foxx and John Lassiter talked economic development and transportation Wednesday night in a debate hosted by WFAE and Queens University. Their biggest difference of opinion came over financing a proposed streetcar running through central Charlotte. Both put creating jobs at the top of their to-do lists. But that's a tall order for anyone in city government. Lassiter and Foxx were asked what the city has to offer companies as far as economic incentives such as tax breaks to locate or expand in Charlotte. Their answers focused on state efforts. Foxx acknowledged the city's capacity to offer tax breaks is limited. "One of the reasons we need to have a better relationship with Raleigh is because most of the incentives that are really the ones that become decision makers for companies are state-level incentives," said Foxx. Foxx said on a smaller scale, he would push to double the amount of money the city sets aside to loan to small businesses in distressed areas. Lassiter said the amount of city and state taxes coupled with rigid incentives rules have caused too many businesses like Red Ventures, to look to South Carolina. Yesterday, the sales and marketing company based in Charlotte announced it was moving three miles across the state border to open up a campus that will employ 1,000 workers. "Those put disincentives for businesses to locate here," said Lassiter. "We have to sell our airport, sell our quality of life, sell our school system, sell our access to capital as vehicles to do that. But ultimately we're going to have a really difficult challenge until we right the ship for what it costs to do business in this community." Neither candidate mentioned how a $305 million incentives package given to Dell computers in 2004 did not translate into permanent jobs. Yesterday, Dell said it will close its plant in Winston Salem and lay off 900 workers. One of the biggest differences between the candidates is how to finance a streetcar that would run from Beatties Ford Road to Eastland Mall. Both support the project that could cost up to $450 million. But Lassiter says the city doesn't have a viable way to pay for it yet. Last week, a city council committee heard several ways the city could come up with the money. "The conversation got into which property tax are we going to use. Is it going to be a regular property tax, a financial service property tax? None of those add up to enough money to make a difference," said Lassiter. "The challenge is we don't have a way to make that happen. You're not going to get it by value engineering. It's going to require $115 million in local money which we don't have." Lassiter said there's no way he would support raising property taxes to pay for the line. Last month, he voted against a $4.5 million engineering study for the streetcar, since he said he saw no way to pay for the actual project. Foxx voted with a Democratic majority to override the Mayor's veto of the study. He says there are other options to pay for the project. "I can say unequivocally that I will not support a property tax increase to deploy the streetcar. But I can also say that I believe there are other ways to get it done," said Foxx. "I believe number one that if our engineers come back with confirmation of what they're telling us they think we can do we will take 25 percent of the cost of the project off the top because we won't have to use overhead wiring." Foxx said establishing a special taxing district along the line would help defray some of the project's cost. City staff told council members last week that raising vehicle registration fees by $30 would be another alternative. Neither Foxx nor Lassiter weighed in on that option last night.