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Politics

Town budget showdown Monday: How will commissioners spend tax dollars?

FIRE CHIEF NEAL SMITH SAYS MORE DOLLARS MUST BE SPENT ON THE DEPARTMENT

May 16. By Dave Vieser. At first blush, it seems like a slam dunk. The proposed $23.4 million Cornelius town budget would freeze town taxes at one of the lowest rates—25.5 cents per $100 of assessed value—in the region.

Freezing taxes is always popular.

But there are serious concerns about spending priorities that are ready to bust out of quiet discussion.

Town employees—from the town manager to police and planners—are leaving Cornelius for better pay. The town’s fire department has launched a major campaign to increase funding, including pay.

Meanwhile, the cost to build an arts center ranges from $16 million to $20 million. Major donors have not stepped up, at least not yet.

Police officers as well as the department’s spokesperson have left for neighboring towns where the pay is higher.

WASHAM

WASHAM

Even former Commissioner Jim Bensman, an astute businessman who helped keep Cornelius out of the MI Connection mess, expressed his concern—from Colorado. “I hope the town will find a way to compensate police officers fairly in comparison with neighboring communities,” he wrote commissioners, explaining, “I understand that since we no longer live there that my opinion shouldn’t count, but I still deeply care about Cornelius.”

Former police spokeswoman Betsy Shores left to become town clerk in Davidson at a salary over 20 percent higher than she was making in Cornelius. Charlotte, meanwhile, is studying raising police officer pay.

Salary woes include the Cornelius/Lemley Fire Dept., where firefighters earn less than their counterparts. The base pay in Cornelius is $13 an hour. Increasing pay to a more competitive $15 an hour would cost taxpayers about $120,000. Fire Chief Neal Smith will fight that battle at the town board meeting Monday.

Firefighters and supporters are expected to turn out in force. Costs—especially the price of fire equipment—are climbing.

“We spent $953,000 in 2010 on the fire department when our town population was 25,000 and today we are spending over $1.5 million with a population of 31,000,” according to Commissioner Dave Gilroy.

He says he would support an 8 percent increase—$1 an hour—for the fire department.

Another challenge is finding money for an arts center. Cornelius voters approved $4 million in “town center” bonds back in 2013. However, as plans begin to focus, the actual cost looks closer to $16 million, even $20 million.

At a town board planning session at The Peninsula Club in January, Mayor Woody Washam opened the door for more town funding: “It seems pretty clear at this point that the arts center

GILROY

cannot be built for $4 million.”

“That’s not in the cards. So, standby… It’s going to be a function of the fundraising and how far the fundraising will go and in that process, there are just so many unknowns right now.  Will there be another ask for the Town? How committed are we to making sure that project happens or not? It could possibly come back to us to see it the rest of the way through.  I don’t know what that number is, it could be no number or several million, I don’t know.”

A sizable donation—on the order of millions of dollars—has to come from the private sector. Last week Allen Tate agents here donated a total of $6,345 toward the arts center.

It comes at a challenging time, when the town is weighing budget priorities like police and fire, road improvements and greenways.

All of these issues will factor into the deliberations during the next several weeks as commissioners digest public comments and then make the tough choices for next year and beyond.

Whether town commissioners are willing to hike salaries to prevent the so-called “brain drain” remains to be seen.

There’s another elephant in the room: The Mecklenburg County property revaluation. It’s expected to be a whopper as property values have soared since 2011.

Even if the town freezes property taxes, the actual amount paid by property owners could increase significantly starting next year based on significantly higher property values.

While the figures are still being compiled, many expect the assessed values in Cornelius to increase by as much as 20 percent to 30 percent.

CORNELIUS TOWN BUDGET PUBLIC HEARING:

7 pm Monday May 21 at Town Hall on Catawba Avenue.

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