Budget passed despite reval concerns
by Staff Writer
by Frank DeLoache
CORNELIUS – Not a single Cornelius resident chose to speak Monday night, June 6, before the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the town’s 2011-12 budget and the lowest tax rate in the state for comparable-size towns.
Despite the lack of acrimony about the town’s budget, Cornelius resident Bob Deaton reminded town leaders at the beginning of their meeting that he and other residents have enough anger to spare for county officials responsible for revaluation of property countywide this year.
Deaton questioned how the town board could approve its budget without really knowing the taxable value of property in the town. Even though 41,000 property owners have appealed their new assessed value, Deaton said he’s not heard from a single property owner whose gotten any response – except a postcard acknowledging their appeal – from the county assessor’s office. Leaving the entire budgeting process in doubt, he said.
The 37-year resident of Cornelius told the Herald Weekly previously the assessor’s office has raised his assessed value 64 percent.
Deaton is so frustrated by county officials refusal to answer questions that he filed a public records request with the county Monday, asking for “all records in whatever form … that relate in any fashion to the design, implementation, field work, calculations, procedures, accounting, assumptions, appeals and any other facet of the 2011 revaluation” pertaining to his property at 17233 Belle Isle Drive.”
“You’ve got a lot of frustrated people in Cornelius, and we don’t have any answers,” Deaton said.
Cornelius Town Manager Anthony Roberts voiced similar frustration with the lack of information from the assessor’s office. The town’s budget is based on the last best estimate provided by the assessor’s office, “but we don’t know if they’ve heard one appeal or 2,000 appeals.”
In his newsletter to residents a day after the board meeting, Commissioner Jim Bensman said, “The information provided by the county assessor is incomplete and considered completely unreliable. They refuse to answer basic questions, so we had to estimate (read, guess) as to what our assessed value will be.
“No matter what other municipalities and the county say about the tax rate they set, just keep in mind they are guessing, too.”
Despite the uncertainty on the county level, commissioners unanimously approved Roberts’ $18 million, general-fund budget. The budget:
• Lowers Cornelius tax rate to 25 cents per $100 of assessed value. That is 2.5 cents less than the current rate. Town officials decided to reduce the tax rate so the average Cornelius resident will get the same tax bill – even though his or her assessed value is increasing almost 20 percent.
Reducing the tax rate so that the town collects the same tax revenue is commonly called adopting a “revenue neutral” budget. At Roberts’ recommendation, the town is actually setting the rate slightly less – 0.2 cent less – that the state’s revenue neutral calculation.
• Provides for average merit-pay increases of 2.5 percent to town employees – in addition to .5 percent bonus pool. Roberts had recommended providing average 3 percent merit-pay increases, but Commissioner Dave Gilroy argued the town should stay within the 2.5 percent national cost-of-living increase.
Though some employees will get bonuses, that money won’t increase their permanent salary. Either plan would cost the town about $100,000 in the coming year.
Roberts also said the pay increases will begin addressing disparity in pay for supervisors in the Cornelius Police Department.
• Maintains the town’s previous annual allocation of $75,850 for the Lake Norman Regional Economic Development Corp. Roberts said commissioners can still earmark 25 percent of that money for recruiting small- and medium-size businesses, an idea supported by several commissioners. None of the commissioners made any comment Monday.
• Allocates money to maintain and operate new facilities at Westmoreland Athletic Complex and nearby Robbins Park.
• Provides for financing a new fire truck, regular replacement of aging police cars and improvements to the intersection of Westmoreland Road and West Catawba Avenue, as the athletic complex is completed.
• Allocates $150,000 for a new system of wayfinding signs that were part of the town’s revision of its entire sign ordinance. The town is using money from tourism tax revenues to pay for those signs.
Making the motion to approve the budget was Commissioner Dave Gilroy, who has never voted to approve a budget in the six years he has served on the town board. His motion and vote drew applause from everyone at the dais, even Bensman, with whom Gilroy rarely agrees.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, June 7, Gilroy said: “While not perfect, this budget breaks new ground. Everyone did solid work, and we are finally containing fixed/recurring personnel and operating expense growth to a small fraction of what we saw throughout the last decade. We made an important structural change in the final analysis reducing employee pay increases to 2.5 percent, and I am pleased to support the budget.”
In other business Monday night, the town board also delayed renewing for another year a contract with North Mecklenburg Animal Hospital to provide health screening to all animals brought to the Cornelius Animal Shelter as well as spay-neuter and other medical services to shelter animals when they are adopted.
Dr. Glenn Wayne Jones, owner of Animal Hospital of Cornelius, the town’s other veterinary practice, said at least one person adopting a pet at the shelter was told by shelter staff she could only take the animal to North Mecklenburg Animal Hospital to be spayed at a discount. Jones said he’s supported the Cornelius Animal Shelter for years and would like to see the two animals hospitals share spay-neuter services.
Commissioners asked Police Chief Bence Hoyle to meet veterinarians at the two hospitals to work out a shared arrangement.