Cornelius could lower tax rate
by Staff Writer
by Frank DeLoache
CORNELIUS – Cornelius commissioners gushed with praise Monday night, May 23, when Town Manager Anthony Roberts brought them a budget with a tax rate that is the lowest in the state for comparable towns.
Then commissioners spent most of the budget meeting debating whether to negotiate with Huntersville about 911 service and quizzing Mike Griffin, a Cornelius businessman and president of the Lake Norman Regional Economic Development Corporation, about the value the agency is giving Cornelius. See related article, page 10.
And Commissioners Dave Gilroy and Jim Bensman, who can’t agree on the color of a dollar bill much less how to spend it, got into their usual finger-pointing session about wise use of taxpayer money and past tax votes.
In his budget, Roberts proposes to lower Cornelius’ property tax rate to 25 cents per $100 of assessed value. The lower tax rate will mean homeowners who see their assessed value increase 14.8 percent or less should still see about the same property tax bill from the town. As part of the revaluation of property throughout the county this year, the county tax assessor’s office has estimated the total assessed value of land in Cornelius will increase 14.8 percent.
But county appraisers have proposed increasing the assessed value of many Cornelius property owners, especially those with homes or property on or near the lake, much higher than the average. Many of those homeowners also have appealed those assessments. If the assessment stands or remains higher than the average, those property owners will still pay higher town property taxes in the 2011-12 budget year.
The town board will hold a public hearing on the budget at its June 6 meeting and could vote on Roberts’ proposal that night. They also may delay their decision.
For the past two meetings, Cornelius commissioners have debated about how to share costs of the 911 center that operates in Cornelius’ police station but also serves Huntersville and Davidson College. The current agreement expires June 30, and Assistant Town Manager Andrew Grant told commissioners Monday that he sees “a very high probability” Huntersville could withdraw from the system if Cornelius does not agree to shoulder more of the operating costs.
Grant and Cornelius Police Chief Bence Hoyle said Huntersville officials are seriously considering contracting instead with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to save money.
Currently, Huntersville pays 62 percent of annual operating costs, Cornelius pays 38 percent and Davidson College pays a flat $35,000 fee. Huntersville wants Cornelius to accept 55 percent of the cost in the coming year.
Though Hoyle and Grant say Cornelius actually pays a higher percentage because the town provides other non-budgeted costs, including legal advice from Town Attorney Bill Brown, “vendor management, employee discipline, budget preparation, relationship management with Huntersville, meeting planning and the Dispatch Advisory Board.”
But the two also acknowledge Huntersville does not get other important benefits, such as keeping its department open and available to the public around the clock, 365 days a year. Likewise, Cornelius can house a breathalyzer unit for suspected drunken driving at its department because its building is always open.
According to numbers Hoyle presented Monday, Huntersville accounts for more 911 calls for service and other indirect contacts, such as people calling the Huntersville department after hours or walking in the 911 center for help. Huntersville accounted for 24,305 calls in those two categories, compared to 18,392 for Cornelius.
On the other hand, Cornelius accounted for more many more “field-initiated activity” reports than Huntersville. That activity reflects officers checking in with the 911 center whenever they check a house where a family is on vacation or patrol a street for speeders, even if they don’t issue a ticket. Cornelius logged 55,791 such reports, compared to 48,283 for Huntersville.
In the end, Hoyle said Cornelius is better off agreeing to shoulder most costs if it means keeping Huntersville as a partner – or customer – in the 911 operation. He and Grant recommend Cornelius offer to increase its share of the cost in the coming year to 44 percent, leaving Huntersville 56 percent.
In a straw vote to support the staff’s recommendation, with Commissioner Thurman Ross absent, Lynette Rinker and Bensman approving and Chuck Travis and Gilroy dissenting the measure. Mayor Jeff Tarte broke the tie in support of the staff recommendation.
But Bensman said he would like to see the staff delineate the actual costs of the operation and then renegotiate a longer agreement that gives Huntersville an actual bill for specific services at those costs.
Gilroy argued that Huntersville still accounts for 62 percent of the cost of the 911 operation, and he said he didn’t believe Huntersville officials were prepared to accept longer response times from Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s dispatch system or accept the expense of launching their own 911 system.