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Cornelius, low on cash, will seek city manager

Legal fees, investigations and a severance payment to former manager have put stress on the city's accounts
by: Christian Gaston Harley Crowder was sworn in as the newest Cornelius city councilor Monday, as city councilors Steve Heinrich and Jef Dalin looked on from the council dais.

The city of Cornelius is running low on reserves, following six months of political turmoil that triggered costs for investigations, extra time with lawyers and a search for new legal representation.

That was the news a partially reformed city council heard on Monday, the first meeting since 'Team 3,' a trio of council members who wanted to cut city fees and services and fired city manager Dave Waffle was unseated.

'We're walking the edge right now,' said Paul Rubenstein, interim city manager.

But even with funds running low, Rubenstein said the city can afford to continue its search for a new city manager.

New council, new track

Cornelius Mayor Neal Knight and city councilors Jamie Minshall and Mari Gottwald were voted out of office in a recall earlier this month. That left behind city councilors Jef Dalin and Steve Heinrich to sort out the city's finances and rebuild the council.

The two started the meeting off by appointing Harley Crowder, a member of both the city planning and parks commissions to serve on the city council. Crowder will serve the remainder of one of the four year terms vacated by Minshall and Gottwald.

Crowder was one of five applicants that applied to fill the vacancy following the recall election. Former Mayor Bill Bash and former city councilor Bob Ferrie, Sr. applied, along with David Alan Logan II, who was appointed to the city parks commission in August and Carla Richesin also applied.

Heinrich and Dalin interviewed Bash and Logan. Dalin said he wasn't comfortable appointing Bash to the council, since the former mayor lost to Knight in the 2010 election.

'The concern I have is the previous election,' Dalin said. 'There was a vote for change.'

Bash said the recall election was another vote for change, and that he was a known quantity that sought consensus on the board. Ferrie withdrew his application following the exchange. Richesin didn't attend the meeting.

Dalin and Heinrich said they wanted to appoint one member Monday night in order to establish a working quorum on the council, then appoint a two more members at the Nov. 7 meeting of the city council. The city will accept applications until Oct. 21, the last day to apply for a position on the board.

Once Crowder joined the dais, the council moved ahead through a laundry list of city business, signing off on an adjustment to a contract for building pathways in Harleman Park and a pair of staff-generated grant requests.

Old business dispatched

The council also heard from Rubenstein about a pair of tasks that originated with Knight. The search for a new city law firm and a review of the city's Construction Excise Tax.

Rubenstein said the city's financial situation made removing the tax unwise. The legal search was complicated by the cost of it and by comments Gottwald made that suggested she and perhaps other members of Team 3 preferred one of the firms that submitted a contract proposal to the city.

That meant the city's search for a new law firm could be challenged in court, Rubenstein said.

'Our process could be challenged," Rubenstein said, "our old process."

Rubenstein said the city's current law firm, Beery, Elsner and Hammond served the city admirably through a difficult period of instability.

"We're covering ground that hopefully most cities will never have to go through," Rubenstein said.

Dalin said he liked the idea of a periodic review of the city's legal services contract, but ultimately sided with Heinrich and Crowder, who agreed with Rubenstein.

The city has incurred at least $150,000 in expenses over the last six months, including a $110,000 severance payment to Dave Waffle following his June firing, increased legal costs and increased police overtime stemming from Rubenstein, the city's police chief, serving as interim city manager.

That's left the city with very little left in funds earmarked for operating expenses. Rubenstein said he was confident the city will have enough funds through the rest of the year to keep the lights on, and look for a new city manager.

If it doesn't, the city's operating funds could borrow from other pots of city money that are earmarked for utility or other uses by state law. That could mean a small financial hit in terms of interest, but it's an available safety net.

Shortly after Waffle was fired, the city council approved a budget with a slight reduction in the city's General Services Fee. Team 3 campaign on eliminating it. That has tightened the city's overall financial outlook.

"Because we reduced the General Services Fee, there's less coming in there. If we have expenses we do not need to make, we need to put them off," Rubenstein said.