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Candidates discuss the issues


Seven people—two of them a married couple—are vying for five seats on the Cornelius Town Board, and some people are scratching their heads.

Diane and Dave Gilroy say they don’t talk politics, but should both get elected to the Town Board, 40 percent of the voting power would be concentrated in one household. There’s nothing illegal or against the rules of local governance. Moreover, everyone has the right to seek to represent their peers in municipal government.

It’s up to voters to decide what’s best for the town.

Issues in this contest are few and some observers say they are manufactured. Despite an increase in the apparent tax rate, Cornelius still has the lowest municipal tax rate in the county and among peers. The bump up from revenue neutral was essential to pay for the transportation bonds that were approved by 70 percent of the voters last year.

The density issue also appears to be moot with only 400 new residential units on the drawing boards here compared to literally thousands in Davidson and Huntersville. The new projects that will be coming out of the ground over the next year are either infill residential or commercial endeavors, where property owners have rights to develop their land—just like the landowners here had 20 and 30 years ago.

In fact, one of the candidates, Tricia Sisson, includes property rights among her campaign. She’s the chair of the Lake Norman Chamber, another unusual circumstance in the town board

race. Ava Callender, who dropped out of the race almost as soon as she got in it, will appear on the ballot.

All seven official candidates, excepting Callender, were good sports at the Cornelius Today Candidate Forum & Old Fashioned BBQ at Town Hall in mid-October. About 80 people attended the event, including first responders, whose pay was an issue in the election last year. The Town Board voted increases this past spring.

The event began with the Presentation of Colors by veterans from American Legion Post 86, the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem led by Cornelius Police Sgt. Jonathan Sarver and Mt. Zion Choir Director Shelley Little.

Reporter Dave Vieser was the moderator; there was plenty of give and take:


Opening Statements:

Incumbent Denis Bilodeau said he is excited to see project happen for roads, parks, greenway connections and a recreation and arts center. He said he brings a record of service as well as knowledge about key issues.

Former Commissioner Jim Duke wants to come back on the board and continue the lifetime of public service that has includes time in the Pentagon and the White House Office of Management and Budget. Duke said he is experienced in budgets and works well with others.

Incumbent David Gilroy emphasized he’s focused on efficiency of government and quality of life. He said he’s an independent, common-sense thinker,“ not a “go-along, get-along” type.

Diane “Dee” Gilroy said she understands the needs of commuters and working-parent professionals. She spends two hours commuting each day. She said she’s principled and able to say no to tolls and high-density development.

Incumbent Mike Miltich said he applies his medical skills, such as caring and listening, to public service. He said he was trained to listen, analyze, diagnose and work with people to solve problems.

Incumbent Thurman Ross was raised in Cornelius and wants to continue supporting the community he loves. Ross first went on the Town Board in 1995, when the population was a fraction of what it is now.

Tricia Sisson said she would bring business, education and community service experience to the job. She is a founding board member of the Lake Norman Charter School.


County sales tax referendum—yes or no?

Mecklenburg County voters will decide by referendum this fall whether to raise the sales tax from 7.25 percent to 7.50 percent in order to generate an estimated $50 million for arts and culture.

Ross said yes, arts dollars benefit Cornelius citizens, perhaps by grants or other funding.

Miltich said no, he can’t be sure any dollars will reach North Mecklenburg; meanwhile, there are urgent infrastructure and education needs.

Dee Gilroy said no, the proposition is nebulous and vague about how the money will be spent.

Dave Gilroy said no, the county doesn’t have a good record of equitable resource distribution.

Duke said no, the referendum terms seem vague since he received the first mailer about it.

Bilodeau said no, because most constituents say there are no guarantees Cornelius will see any funds.

Sisson said no, because a sales-tax increase is a bad idea, especially when three bordering counties have a lower rate.


Paying for the fire services

Miltich said there is a study under way to assess the possibility of merging the Cornelius/Davidson/Huntersville fire departments. “The taxpayers of our town are getting a great deal with our volunteers and part-time department and that’s gonna change,” Miltich said, “the writing’s on the wall.”

Dee Gilroy said, “I think it’s a travesty that we don’t have a full-time fire department here in a town our size.” She added that Cornelius needs a five-year strategic plan that builds up to a full-time, paid department.

Dave Gilroy said, “For police and fire, in a phrase, it’s ‘maintain the excellence.’” He said the quality of both public safety departments has been “fantastic” for years, such as certification and knowledge, and Cornelius needs to maintain that high quality.

Duke said, “Talk about public service, these guys are public service.” They need to paid, supported and honored,” Duke said.

Bilodeau said safety is his top priority, explaining that he supported the controversial $2 per-hour raise for firefighters. “When you’re at your worst, they’re at their best,” he said.

Sisson said maintaining a high-quality emergency services network is one of the “fundamental roles” of government. She wants to work for viable solutions that support public safety.

Ross said a potential agreement among area departments could represent a cost savings. “We do need to recognize that as the town grows, we need collaboration with other towns because, our fire department especially, is aging out and their pool is short,” he said.


Affordable-housing perspectives

Dee Gilroy said solutions should not require tax increases.

Dave Gilroy said affordable housing is a regional issue, and there’s a need to encourage more development of workforce housing in Cornelius, possibly on aging parts of the east side of town.

Duke said there are some areas that could be rehabilitated, for example Smithville infrastructure needs attention, and the town needs new housing people can afford.

Bilodeau said it’s a two-pronged issue of affordable housing and wages. He’s met with the county about how to address it and said reception was generally positive.

Sisson said it’s a tough issue since Cornelius has relatively few developable acres. She said local businesses cannot always afford big wage increases.

Ross said the notion of what’s affordable is open to discussion. He discussed local jobs for residents who cannot commute.

Miltich said Cornelius once had a task force on affordable housing and needs to revive it. He’s aware of “great ideas” from the Smithville Community Coalition to form a non-profit, neighborhood-specific development organization.

Development: Smart vs. too much

Dave Gilroy said he’s for responsible growth and has seen what happens when growth overwhelms quality of life. He said growth needs to be properly managed and Cornelius needs non-residential development. “I’ve been intent on trying to channel growth toward (some type of) high-quality employment center, local types of economic growth,” he said.

Duke said while smart, responsible growth is important, being fair to landowners is also important. He said the town has to remain reasonable, and not run off developers. He said the town has not approved a high-density project in 10 years. “We have families that have properties that have been in their families for generations,” Duke explained, “these are their 401ks, these are the futures of their families.”

Bilodeau said current planning and zoning codes protect the town from high density. Many years of citizen input and involvement have caused the town to incorporate policy accordingly, such as larger buffers, less density and fewer apartment and condominium complexes. He said Huntersville now looks to Cornelius as a planning example. “We have a few hundred new residential rooftops planned while they have 10 times that,” he said.

Sisson said we need to take a look at these projects “development by development and project by project.” She trusts the land-use codes adopted in recent years and said Cornelius should avoid any kind of blanket opposition. Sisson will encourage more commercial development and protect against negative impact to infrastructure.

Miltich said Cornelius has conditional zoning, which allows for both compromises and controls. He cited the example of how citizen preference changed the buffer and number of trees along Knox Road. “We have a very strong planning department,” he said.

Ross said Cornelius needs a balanced development ratio, which can be addressed through zoning. The rules have to be fair and reasonable to all. He said it’s important to remember: Many of the neighborhoods now in Cornelius were once large tracts of land owned by families and individuals who exercised their right to sell, paving the way for development. “And if they hadn’t,” Ross said, “some of your houses might not be there.”

Dee Gilroy held up the future Alexander Farms project as a bad development plan. She asked why not encourage an attractive corporate campus that would bring jobs and would not burden infrastructure. “I would turn it down and I would send those developers packing right away,” she said.