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Finding a focus in Cornelius

Polling - City will gauge public opinion on several topics later this year

Do Cornelius residents want a new library? A community center? Are they interested in sustainability as a city goal?

More important, are they willing to pay for it?

Members of the city council don't know, but they want to find out.

On Monday, councilors discussed strategies for taking Cornelius residents' temperatures on a range of ideas - from how much they're willing to pay for police and fire service, to whether new projects could be taken on.

In cash-strapped Cornelius, where budgets seem to squeeze by on razor-thin margins each year, city staffers say that something needs to change come November, with either more revenue coming in, or costs being cut.

Past money measures have floated like lead balloons and councilors want to avoid another defeat.

That's why City Manager Dave Waffle sent out a request for proposals from polling agencies late last year.

The city picked Campbell DeLong Resources, Inc. of Portland. The budget and contract are still being sorted out, but Waffle said there'd be about $20,000 for survey funding in this fiscal year, which ends in June.

During the Monday work session, Martha DeLong, director of market research for the firm, said that by starting off with a series of focus groups, city leaders could get a better sense of what residents think about their city.

Unlike a telephone survey, focus groups can lift the lid on community attitudes that may go unheard in a city where council sessions and public hearings often go unattended.

'Do you think city council is going in the right direction? Why? That's always the big question for a focus group: why?' DeLong said.

DeLong also said Cornelius' sizeable Hispanic population - estimated at about 40 percent - creates challenges and opportunities.

DeLong said that the city could assume that a big chunk of those Hispanic residents aren't voters.

Richard Meyer, the city's director of development and operations, said census data indicates about half of the city's Hispanic residents aren't U.S. citizens.

DeLong said that a focus group meant to dig into Hispanic views in the city would benefit from a native Spanish speaker.

'The good thing about the Hispanic community is that they are so appreciative of [translators] and they often have very different, much more positive attitudes, than non-minority residents,' DeLong said.

City Councilor Brad Coffey said that the city's outreach effort should target everyone, voter or not.

'Even though they don't vote, they still pay. That kind of gets lost in the shuffle,' Coffey said.

All the councilors agreed that ultimately the city should aim to follow up the focus groups with a broader survey gauging public opinion on a few concrete proposals. Those include ideas for fire and police service levies, a gas tax, and a funding levy to build a new library.

Not all of those ideas are likely to reach the ballot, indeed none of them might if reaction from voters is too negative.

'We know how to do the math and we know how to do the levies, but we need to find out the threshold and find out the verbiage,' said City Councilor Jeffery Dalin.

'We've done a lot of them, but apparently we haven't written them very well,' he added, referring to the city's history of striking out at the ballot box.

DeLong urged the councilors to focus on one proposal, such as a fire levy, that they felt would surely pass, instead of offering a menu of options on a crowded ballot.

'When things get voted down all the time, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,' DeLong said. 'Put up something that you really believe you can win. If it's just fire, then put that up.'