With two bonds on the ballot for next week’s election, the Wake County Taxpayers Association wants voters to have a say in any future debt the city wants to take on. The group sued the City of Raleigh recently for rejecting a petition to ask voters to amend the city charter.
The city rejected the Taxpayers Association’s petition earlier this year, claiming that the group does not have enough signatures and that there is no provision in the state’s general statute to change the city’s charter in regards to debt.
Taxpayers Association President Russell Capps said his group decided to file a lawsuit to “get the judge to declare who’s right – the city or us.”
As stated on their website, the Wake County Taxpayers Assocation is “a non-partisan, non-profit, all-volunteer organization whose purpose is to monitor the use of taxes, initiate action to reduce excessive taxation, eliminate wasteful government spending, and encourage the wise and common sense use of taxes at all levels of government.”
According to the lawsuit, filed in Wake County Superior Court last month, the Taxpayers Association’s petition seeks to change the city’s charter by proposing that any debt the city wants to take on must go to voters in an election, except to “fund or refund a valid existing debt originally approved by the voters.”
As stated in the lawsuit, the City of Raleigh is currently about $1.2 billion in debt – with about $420 million not approved by voters.
The lawsuit contends that the city is contemplating borrowing $458 million more without voter approval for projects, such as the highly-contested Lightner Center, and that the 2010 general fund budget siphoned off 29 percent for covering the debt service.
In order to make such a change to the city’s charter, the Taxpayers Association circulated a petition, as required by both North Carolina’s General Statute and the city’s charter.
But, the number of signatures that are needed for consideration is a matter of debate in the case.
According to North Carolina General Statute, a petition would need 10 percent “of the whole number of voters who are registered to vote in city elections according to the most recent figures certified by the State Board of Elections or 5,000, whichever is less.”
Raleigh’s City Charter states that it must be signed by “at least ten per centum of the registered voters at the last regular municipal election.”
According to the lawsuit, the Taxpayers Association collected 6,500 signatures, which they say is more than what is required by both the state’s general statute and the city’s charter.
The Taxpayers Association’s argument is that since 55,121 voters voted in the last Wake County municipal election in 2009, and 10 percent of that is 5,513, their total exceeds the city’s charter and the state’s general statute requirements.
“We contend that state statute prevails over the city charter,” Capps said, in regards to the case.
But, City Clerk and Treasurer Gail Smith’s argument, as stated in the city’s rejection letter, is that per the city’s charter the petition needs about 25,000 signatures, or 10 percent of all registered voters at the last municipal election, which the city states was a total of more than 250,000.
The lawsuit states that Smith also denied the petition because general statutes do not include provisions for amending a city’s charter so voters can approve municipal debt.
Both Smith and City Attorney Thomas McCormick declined to comment on the pending litigation.