Tough budget planning ahead for commissioners
by Staff Writer
CORNELIUS – Cornelius commissioners are tackling a variety of challenges as they begin developing their fiscal 2012-13 budget.
The town board of commissioners held their annual budget retreat March 6-7 in Winston Salem to discuss these issues and figure out a game plan.
The top issues complicating this year’s budget include:
• The county’s revaluation of properties. The 2011 revaluation valued homes at about 20 percent higher than anticipated, giving commissioners an extra $2 million in their budget.
• A county-proposed fire tax district for the extraterritorial jurisdictions (ETJ). The county is discussing implementing a four to seven cent tax-rate in lieu of giving money directly to the fire department, leaving the town to fill in the gap or reduce department staffing.
• Lake Patrol. For years the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) has been patrolling the lake, but the town wants a more constant presence, even if it means taking on the job itself.
• The town 911 call center. The town of Huntersville decided last year to switch to CMPD’s call center, leaving the town of Cornelius to find alternative revenue sources and fund the call center itself.
Commissioners Dave Gilroy and Lynette Rinker said revaluation was one of the issues they’d have to be really careful with.
The board voted last year for a revenue neutral tax rate, but because of the revaluation that revenue neutral tax led to $2 million in additional revenue for the town.
But there are dozens of revaluation appeals going on daily and the outcome of those appeals could affect the amount of that revenue.
Gilroy thinks if nothing changes and the town maintains the $2 million in extra revenue, that money needs to be spent on completing capital projects or implementing a further reduction in taxes.
Rinker said while she’d like to see projects residents wanted done, like road work or a new arts center, she said it may be wise to do a budget similar to last year’s in case the revaluations are tossed out or appealed.
“There are a lot of moving parts in this year’s budget so it’ll be an interesting year trying to calculate what our dollars for next year, and the tax rates, should be in fairness to our citizens,” Rinker said.
Gilroy doesn’t think that money should be saved for a rainy day, no matter what decision the board makes.
“Our total town savings account (fund balance and capital reserve) is now at a record $12.5 million – over a full year’s worth of property tax,” Gilroy said. “This is not our money. It belongs to Cornelius citizens and we should not simply hold it for many years in an account, which currently earns almost no interest.”
There are plenty of ways the town could spend its extra revenue, such as helping fund the 911 call center since the town of Huntersville backed out.
The money could go toward filling a $95,000 void that will be left if the county commissioners vote to approve a fire district tax for the county’s various ETJs.
“I would love if we could scream this from the highest rooftops, with the tax districts, Cornelius is the only town that is losing money because our ETJ is so small,” Rinker said.
Rinker said the other towns in the county with larger ETJ districts would see little to no impact.
Rinker said the board has tried to work creatively within itself and with the county, but it looks like the town will just have to come up with the money.
“At this point I guess it is what it is,” Rinker said. “We understand why the county is having to do this, but the other thing is the $2 million they’re saving. It’s a back-door increase to all county citizens because that $2 million won’t be cut, they’re looking to make more to spend more.”
“I think it’s premature to say that,” said County Commissioner Karen Bentley, who represents Cornelius and the Lake Norman area. “We haven’t even started putting our budget together and I’ve already told the county manager I expect a dollar for dollar reduction based on those revenues.”
Bentley said the county board has already been told Central Piedmont Community College is requesting $31 million this year, and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools has already requested $27.5 million in additional funding.
“So there’s a lot of moving parts, so it’s premature to claim it’s backdoor revenues,” she said.
Bentley said she knows it’s a tough budget year for everyone and the revaluation hasn’t helped.
“The revaluation is a mess,” she said. “… There’s a lot of confusion and angst and I can totally relate to that. I just ask for patience. We are working hard for a resolution but there may not be one this year.”
Want to go?
The Cornelius Board of Commissioners will hold its next regular meeting Monday, March 19, at 7 p.m. in town hall. For a copy of the agenda, visit www.cornelius.org.