Cornelius town hall

CORNELIUS – Most Cornelius property owners will see a tax increase after a divided town board on June 3 approved a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The $24 million budget, passed in a 3-2 vote, sets a property-tax rate of 22.2 cents per $100 in assessed value. And while that is lower than the current rate of 25.5 cents, the county’s latest property revaluation will increase overall property values in the town by an estimated 30 percent. To be “revenue neutral,” or generate nearly the same amount of funds regardless of the new values, the tax rate would have been 20.2 cents.

“It is not revenue neutral; I call it revenue appropriate,” Commissioner Denis Bilodeau said before expressing support for the budget. “No one wants higher taxes, and I acknowledge the impact of the revaluation. We have heard tonight from many residents who understand you have to pay to maintain quality of life.”

Commissioner David Gilroy, who voted against the budget along with Kurt Naas, considered it falling “short of the citizens’ expectations for the kind of discipline they expect from us.”

“I don’t know if we could have gotten to revenue neutral. … We didn’t come remotely close,” Gilroy said. “That’s disappointing to me.”

Town Manager Andrew Grant recommended the two-cent increase to pay for the debt the town will incur from two sets of voter-approved bonds, including the most recent $24 million for road projects.

The town has a policy of maintaining a fund balance equal to about 40 percent of the annual budget, with $17 million of unrestricted dollars currently in reserves. Even with the increase, Grant said the town’s reserves are expected to dip below 40 percent in coming years, though more revenue will delay when that happens.

“The decisions we make this year impact the next five, 10, 20 years out,” Grant said. “Even at two pennies above revenue neutral, you are still using fund balance, just not as rapidly. … You have to heavily scrutinize even more than we normally do because of debt.”

Process, pay raises questioned

The dividing factor in the budget proceedings was a more than 13-percent spending increase for personnel. It includes funding for merit increases as well as a more than 10 percent increase for staff raises that were approved in March.

A salary study presented at that time revealed that pay for 64 percent of the town’s positions were under market value and could be a cause of the town’s high employee turnover. The board, in the same split vote, approved spending funds to bring pay for those positions, including the majority of the police department, closer to market averages.

Naas said there were a lot of things he liked about the budget, but that he struggled with increasing the average by raising salaries, and the fact the board approved “the largest line-item increase before the board had a single discussion on the operating budget.”

“For the record, I’m not against making personnel decisions … but that needs to be done in the context of the entire budget discussions,” he said. “You cannot expect and demand excellence of others if we don’t practice it ourselves. We all agreed to the budget process, and we blew it up.”

A handful of residents spoke June 3 in support of the budget.

Charmaine Nephew, who was on the salary study committee, said the panel’s results were “not out of generosity or lack of fiscal conservatism” but rather to enable the town to have more competitive wages.

David Hodson, a self-described fiscal conservative realist, also backed the staff, saying he didn’t like taxes but was one of the 70 percent who voted in favor of the transportation bonds and is concerned about the town losing good employees, especially police officers who work hard to keep the community safe.

New personnel costs will also fund a new human resources position, which was another source of disagreement among commissioners.

Grant said the new hire would handle personnel issues and worker’s compensation claims, and could lower town costs in other areas, such as attorney’s fees, by preventing situations that could lead to legal challenges. The future employee, who is slated to start halfway through the fiscal year, would also work to improve recruitment and retention.

To help fund the increased costs, Grant also mandated cuts for every department that wouldn’t disrupt service levels and recommended some capital projects be postponed or cut.

The full budget is available on the town’s website, cornelius.org.

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