It’s going to be a big year in Charlotte politics

It’s going to be a big year in Charlotte politics

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

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In normal times, the Charlotte City Council that meets for the first time in 2022 on Monday would feature a few newly-elected faces.

But this isn’t a normal year.

What’s happening: The fall 2021 local election has been pushed back twice, first due to a delay in U.S. Census results, then because a state court wanted more time to look at redistricting lawsuits. Now, all election primaries will be in May.

  • So, the same 11-member council that has quarreled and lobbed personal attacks at each other will start another year together, with a slew of important agenda items.

Along with the Mecklenburg County Commissioners and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board, local leaders will tackle issues like transportation, development regulations and public safety this year.

Why it matters: The established wisdom is that little gets done in local politics during campaign season. But from pandemic recovery to shaping the vision for our city for the next few decades, politicians have quite a lot on their plate in 2022.

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Here are some of the biggest issues local leaders will grapple with.

Transit

Around this time last year, leaders unveiled a major investment in expanding transportation in the region. Now, its fate hangs in the balance.

Context: In December 2020, the Charlotte MOVES Task Force convened by Mayor Vi Lyles unveiled the Transformational Mobility Network, a plan that calls for new light rail lines, greenways, bike lanes and improved bus routes and roads.

It has a hefty estimated price tag of $13.5 billion, much of which would come from a 1 cent county sales tax hike that voters would need to sign off on.

Yes, but: Several key barriers remain:

  • The Republican-majority General Assembly would have to approve a sales tax increase.
  • There’s opposition from the northern Mecklenburg towns stemming from the lack of movement on building the LYNX Red Line, the long-anticipated rail line running North from Uptown. The tracks it would be built on are owned by Norfolk Southern, which has repeatedly refused to share them.

If those hurdles are somehow overcome, the sales tax could appear on the ballot this year. But even city leaders are skeptical.

  • Right now, it is the very best case scenario,” Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt tells me of the possibility of a November vote. “I’m not holding my breath.”

But one thing is sure: even if the efforts fail, we’re almost certain to hear a lot about transit this year. And with nearly 400,000 people expected to move to Charlotte over the next two decades, that conversation couldn’t come soon enough.

Charlotte Moves Task force report - rail

Source: Charlotte Moves Task force report, city of Charlotte

Unified Development Ordinance

The city’s 2040 Plan defined city council in 2021. But all of that fighting was over a visionary document.

  • In 2022, council will decide on the rules that actually put that vision into place, called the Unified Development Ordinance.

Details: The 600-plus page document will serve as the rulebook for developing in Charlotte, from requirements for saving and removing trees to stormwater.

  • It also establishes zoning districts for residential, commercial and industrial areas (that’s where the single-family zoning changes in the 2040 plan come in).

Why it matters: It may not sound like an exciting read, but it is a key policy that will shape how the city develops. For instance:

  • To help preserve Charlotte’s dwindling tree canopy, the UDO proposes requiring any private property owner obtain a permit to remove trees that are larger than 30 inches in diameter, if they are not diseased or falling down.
  • It would also restrict vacation rental platforms like Airbnb, including limiting the number of short-term rentals in a given area.

What’s next: You can comment on the UDO online through Friday, and city staff will release another draft this spring. City Council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance in July.

Infrastructure shortfall

The state Department of Transportation is facing an $11.6-billion budget shortfall for transit projects, and Charlotte leaders are bracing for delays and cutbacks.

The big picture: The city doesn’t yet know what projects will be impacted. But as that is expected to become more clear this year, City Council will have to decide whether to fund some improvements out of their budget.

  • For example, in December, council voted to reimburse Centene, a health insurance giant that is building an East Coast Headquarters in the University area, up to half the cost, or $6.5 million, for improvements to two intersections.
  • Both intersections fall under the state’s responsibility, but with Centene’s campus opening this year, the city wanted the projects prioritized.

Construction on the Centene campus in June 2021. Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios

Of note: NCDOT’s financial hole is just for projects that have already been funded. That means items on the city’s wishlist — like street lighting, traffic signals and pedestrian crossings — are in flux too.

Public safety

With a gun crisis in our schools, the city and the nation, public safety will continue to dominate conversation, especially during 2022 campaigns.

What’s happening: As of about halfway through the school year, 23 guns were found on CMS campuses.

  • CMS has ordered clear backpacks and will implement other safety measures like more random screenings.
  • But school board members and superintendent Earnest Winston will likely face continued pressure to address the issue this year.

The big picture: Though the number of homicides fell in 2021, gun violence is still pervasive in Charlotte and cities across the country, and is disproportionately harming communities of color.

COVID-19 recovery

Elected officials will continue to address the fallout from COVID-19 this year as more relief money flows in.

Context: The city, county and CMS collectively will receive $674.5 million from last year’s American Rescue Plan Act. Some of that money arrived last year, and the remainder will be distributed in May.

The city, which is taking in $142 million, allocated the first half of the money to three main categories: housing, workforce development, employment and community vitality. But leaders still have to decide how to spend the other $71 million coming this year.

Mecklenburg County released its strategy for disbursing $215 million in ARPA money in December. It prioritizes using the money for issues like affordable housing, homelessness, health equity, parks and childcare.

The bottom line: The money is seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address the inequities that the pandemic exacerbated — if we make the most of it.

Elections this year

Of note: Court rulings on the redistricting case could change the information below.

May primaries: Primary elections will take place on May 17 for Charlotte City Council, mayor and all other 2022 races (County Commission, U.S. House, U.S. Senate, North Carolina House and Senate, courts, district attorney, etc.)

July: Per a state law, the date of the city general election is dependent on whether there is a second federal primary anywhere in North Carolina, Mecklenburg County elections director Michael Dickerson tells me. A second primary is held when none of the candidates in a primary receive a certain percentage of the vote.

  • But most likely, there will be one somewhere, meaning the City Council and mayoral general elections will likely be on July 26 if nothing changes.

November: The general election will be held for all other 2022 races, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, which does not have a primary because its races are nonpartisan.

You can view the full list of offices on the ballot in 2022 here.

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