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Cornelius mulls gas tax

Revenue - Focus groups indicate there's support for a small bump at the pump

Cornelius residents like that their city of nearly 11,000 still has a small-town feel. But they're concerned about encroaching big-city crime problems.

Residents don't have a lot of discretionary income to spend on services like police or fire, but they do seem to cautiously support an increase in the city gas tax.

Those were the vexing results of a pair of focus groups the City of Cornelius held in late February that asked 15 residents about their hometown.

On Monday night, city councilors mulled the results to figure out what to do with the findings.

When the city contracted with Campbell DeLong Resources to conduct the research, officials hoped to find a money-raising option backed by a majority of voters to help fund police and fire service.

The results from the focus groups, however, didn't cut a clear path to a winning proposal.

'Their perception is they don't really know what the police are doing and because [of that] they don't feel comfortable giving them more money,' said Martha DeLong, director of market research for the firm.

DeLong said that since residents felt fire service is functioning well, they didn't want to spend more money for that, either.

Councilor Brad Coffey was perplexed. 'They get good service so they don't see any reason to give them more money,' Coffey said. 'But they don't get good service and they don't see any reason to give them more money.'

"You have a community that is a real challenge to pass anything,' DeLong said.

City Manager Dave Waffle called the focus group report 'sobering.'

Even so, the council was clear that it must create more breathing room in the city budget.

A plan was discussed to have DeLong poll residents on three options for the November ballot: a citizen-driven gas tax increase of 2-cents-per-gallon, and two separate five-year operating levies for police and fire funding.

Waffle said results of the poll, which will likely be held in early June, will guide the fall ballot.

If the poll numbers are in line with the focus group results, the gas tax may be the lone survivor.

While gas taxes are anathema in other communities, Waffle said Cornelius officials hear support.

'Mostly it's recognition that there's 40,000 cars per day on Baseline and Adair and mostly it's a tax paid by other people,' Waffle said.