Cross-Charlotte Trail budget shortfall discussed months before public update

Cross-Charlotte Trail budget shortfall discussed months before public update

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Emails obtained by WBTV show City of Charlotte employees discussing funding shortages in the Cross-Charlotte trail months before the city council and members of the public were made aware of the new cost estimates. Voters have approved $38 million in bonds for the Cross-Charlotte Trail since 2014, including $5 million just this past November. Before last fall's vote staff knew the project had a major funding shortfall.

There have been many twists in turns in the planning and construction of the Cross-Charlotte Trail. The blind curve came on January 7th at a city council meeting.

That was the day the city revealed another $77 million was needed to complete the Cross-Charlotte Trail as originally envisioned, on top of the $38 million already budgeted

"I have to say I'm kind of flabbergasted by these numbers," Councilman Ed Driggs said at the meeting.

"There were multiple opportunities to not only update Council as well as the community throughout the way when we started to see that these costs were going to be greater than what was anticipated," Councilwoman Lawana Mayfield said.

Director of Engineering and Property Management Mike Davis delivered the news to council.

"Certainly, part of that message was in order to complete the Cross-Charlotte Trail it was going to require significant additional funding," Davis said during an interview with WBTV.

"That's not a message that people want to hear but ultimately it's helpful."

The Cross-Charlotte Trail is a joint county-city project. 26 miles of trail are in the city and five miles are in Mecklenburg County.

“Could the public and council have known before January 7th?” Investigative Reporter David Hodges asked.

“The development of a project like this plays out over years,” Davis said.

“It's sort of a fluid thing. So you always have to ask yourself when is the right moment to stop and explain to people involved who care about it where we stand.”

Davis said January 7th isn't the first time they brought updates about costs to council.

At a February 2018 budget meeting Davis briefed council on budget concerns with community investment projects from the capital budget.

But when Davis took the podium the Cross-Charlotte Trail never came up.

“I don't recall having a conversation. I recall it being among the materials provided,” Davis said.

A PowerPoint presentation from that day provided to WBTV shows a slide in which the city identified $62 million was needed to complete the city's portion of the Cross-Charlotte Trail but it was never discussed at the meeting.

WBTV requested Davis' emails leading up to the January 7th announcement. In one email chain with staff members on October 30th, Davis asks when the next council action item is for the Brandywine to Tyvola segment of the trail.

Senior project manager Joe Frey responded that they need council to approve real estate condemnations to continue acquiring property for the trail.

On November 5th Frey wrote…

"We have yet to take any condemnations to council and these will be the first ones. Just wanted you to know in case a decision is made to move the award of the (South Charlotte) connector back to December and you want those to move back too so they don't hit council first."

The South Charlotte Connector is a $3 million segment of the Cross-Charlotte Trail.

Davis responds –

"This is what I was referencing earlier. Please let me know if you get any sense that these items become controversial. If they do, we should probably defer by one meeting."

Davis told WBTV there was no intention to deceive council in order to get the award for the South Charlotte Connector.

“We recognized with anticipating multiple construction contracts coming forward that they (council) should get briefed on the status of everything,” Davis said.

“What we don't want to have is something coming forward that's out of sequence that starts a conversation in an unorganized way. It's simply a way to make sure that information is well organized and cohesive.”

Ultimately council awarded the South Charlotte Connector contract but only after being informed of the $77 million dollar funding gap.

Emails from November show that Davis wasn't sure if staff would be briefing council on the new cost estimates.

On November 8th Frey emailed Davis that he ran into councilman Greg Phipps at a North End Partners meeting. He said Phipps "was also already aware of the lack of funding" and Phipps "asked me to set up a meeting with him."

Davis responded that he would work with Phipps on updating him soon but wrote…

"please do not mention the possibility of a full council briefing since we have not confirmed that we will in fact be doing that."

WBTV asked Davis about the email.

“There was never any intention to not tell council. That was a moment in time that the manner in which we would be communicating to council wasn't known yet,” Davis said.

Davis also must rely on City Manager Marcus Jones for when information will be provided to council.

At the city council retreat on January 29th, city staff revealed there were budget concerns with multiple capital improvement projects approved after the recession in 2012 that weren't properly planned before being sent to voters for funding. The Cross-Charlotte Trail was one of them.

“When we think about how we don't recreate this situation the number one thing we think about is what we can do is go back and make sure the projects that are going to come forward for people to vote on, for council to consider, is that we've vetted them well enough that we have pretty decent confidence in the cost,” Davis said.

City staff recently presented council with a new timeline for vetting and planning projects that are a part of the Community Investment Plan.

Davis says that the city has been making an effort to not blindside the public about Cross-Charlotte Trail costs.

“People who have paid attention to the Cross-Charlotte Trail, and we've done a lot of community engagement on this project for years, have generally been in touch projects development and I think are not surprised that the project needs additional funding,” Davis said.

“But this much funding maybe a little bit of a surprise,” Investigative Reporter David Hodges asked.

“For some people yes,” Davis said.

“Well even council was a little surprised,” Hodges responded.

“So I would say that absolutely we could have done more and should have done more to be clear with the public earlier than that moment.”

Copyright 2019 WBTV. All rights reserved.