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Cornelius mayor presents a taxing question

ELECTION '07 -- Terry Rilling is backing two ballot measures that require a voter OK on all city fees
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In an effort to bring more accountability to city government, Cornelius Mayor Terry Rilling is pushing two initiatives aimed at allowing voters to choose which government services they want to fund.

Some members of the city council, however, are wary of the proposed initiatives, which Rilling hopes to get on the March 2007 ballot. They worry that Rilling's proposals, if adopted, would undermine the city's financial stability.

The two measures are geared at requiring a public vote on all city taxes and fees. One would removing any existing taxes and fees imposed without a vote; the other would require future revenue proposals to go before voters.

Rilling says he wants the city to develop a levy-based system in which citizens decide where their money will go, with separate levies for police, library, fire, and other city services.

'If they want to keep the fees, they'll keep them,' said Rilling. 'All I'm doing is giving the people the right to vote on something.'

Rilling was elected nearly two years ago with the backing of a group of city residents upset over a previous city council's implementation of fee tacked on to monthly water bills.

After months of wrangling and a controversial public advisory vote, the council last year decided to scrap the water fee and replace it with revenue package that included a hike in the local gas tax, a fee on new development, and flat general service fees for both residents and businesses.

Support police

Rilling said he voted in favor of the initiatives in March of this year, with the intent that funding would go to support the police department.

He said he decided to push for his pair of ballot measures after his colleagues on the city council crafted a budget that, in Rilling's view, short-changed the police department.

Rilling believes that the council erred in voting to partially restore library hours and hire a part-time librarian rather than hire another police officer.

'They decided the library was more important than the safety of the citizens,' Rilling said. 'If someone comes into your home, rapes your wife or daughter, what are you going to do, call the library to throw a book at them?'

Growing crime?

Rilling cited the increasing number of emergency 911 phone calls in Cornelius, which he said rose 5.4 percent in the last 10 months, as an indicator crime is a growing problem.

The prevalence of methamphetamine use is a threat to public safety, he said, as evidenced by the meth-related murder of Cornelius resident Sean Michael Busa in 2003.

'Most of the time, we don't have police visible to the bad guys,' said Rilling, a corporal with the Washington County Sheriff's Office. 'They study that like you study your job, or I study my job.'

To put the funding question before voters, Rilling must finish writing the initiatives and collect the signatures of more than 400 registered voters in the city by Dec. 13.

Worried about message

Councilor Alfredo Solares-Vega said that if the initiatives make it onto the ballot and pass, he worries about the message it will send to city employees.

A funding system based entirely on three- or five-year-levies may undermine their sense of job security, he said, causing employees to think, ''My position is safe for five years, and after that, I don't know.''

Last year, several Cornelius city employees took other jobs, citing the city's unstable finances as at least part of their decision to move on.

Other councilors, meanwhile, defended their decision to boost library funding in the 2006-2007 budget, noting that the program seriously suffered last year after the library director quit and the council reduced hours of operation.

'When you shut down or reduce the hours of a library, it affects the people who can least afford it,' said Councilor Brad Coffey.

Janel Dalin, chair of the Cornelius library board, said that in the past year the library cut its hours by half, reduced its book budget by about two-thirds, and 'lost the equivalent of about of two full-time employees.'

Her husband, Jeffrey, who sits on the Cornelius City Council, noted that the library had 40,000 visitors in the year prior to the cuts. 'There's only about 10,000 people in Cornelius, so that's equivalent to everyone going four times.'

He took issue with Rilling's characterization that the library was a higher priority than the police or fire protection.

Given that the entire library program was in danger of collapsing, Councilor Dalin said, it made sense to save it rather than providing money to the relatively stable police department, which currently has 13 officers.

'Do we sustain an entire program, or add one-fourteenth to another program?' he asked.

Due to an unexpected boost in property taxes (pegged to a spurt of development), Cornelius will likely end up with another police officer anyway, said city manager David Waffle.

'It translates to about $70,000 in city taxes,' said Waffle. 'We'll hire a new police officer sometime this year.'

Giving up his post

For Mayor Rilling, however, this is too little, too late. 'We need 15 to 16 officers, and we only have 13,' said Rilling, who is giving up his post in January so he can run for the state legislature this fall.

'There are drug houses that exist which we don't have the staffing to deal with, and crime taking place every day that we can't respond to.'