Deadlock on fee cuts could lead to a shutdown of city government July 1

Neal Knight wants to cut about $500,000 from the budget of the city of Cornelius.

But Knight, the mayor, has waited until the final month of the city's budgeting process to put forth proposals for cuts.

Knight wants to cut the city's general services fee, and pay for the loss of the revenue generated by the fee with layoffs in city departments.

Knight wouldn't give the News-Times a full list of positions he'd like to see cut, but he said the first position in his sights would be Richard Meyer's.

Meyer, who manages the development and operations departments of the city earns a salary of $101,568, making him the third highest-paid employee at the city, behind Police Chief Paul Rubenstein, who makes $103,608 a year, and City Manager Dave Waffle, who makes $112,956 a year.

With a downturn in the construction industry, Knight says he's not convinced the city's building department, which is part of Meyer's charge, has enough work to do.

'Is Richard Meyer's position relative to keep?' Knight asked.

As mayor, Knight can't demand that Waffle, who manages the day-to-day operations of the city fire any particular employee, but he can remove a job from the budget.

The problem now is timing.

The city's budget committee - which Knight sits on - approved a budget that included a reduction in the general services fee and made enough cuts in other services, including the city's municipal court, to fill a vacant police officer position.

Knight liked replacing the police officer, but he didn't like including the general services fee. He voted against the budget in May, after approving the proposal at a previous meeting of the committee. Joining him in opposition were city councilors Jamie Minshall and Mari Gottwald, who joined the council this year as part of 'Team 3,' a slate of candidates recruited by Knight to cut city fees and services.

Now, with less than a month to go, the city council must approve a budget. Unless one of the Team 3 members, who hold a majority position on the council, changes their mind, the current budget won't pass.

The city council could make changes to the budget on the fly in order to adopt it, or they could take no action.

If the city doesn't pass a budget by the end of June, the government would effectively shut down.

Either way bucks tradition in the city, where Ralph Brown said - since the time he joined the budget committee in the 1990s - major structural changes to the budget were handled by the committee months before the end of the fiscal year in July.

'It's a cut-and-dried budget where you've got this much money, you spend this much money,' Brown said. 'But Neal wants to fire some more people, it's as simple as it is.'

Unlike the budget turmoil the Forest Grove School District is facing, the budget showdown in Cornelius is built purely on politics.

Along with the property tax, utility fees and state revenue sharing, the city's two methods of raising serious money, the service fee and the gas tax, are bringing in enough funds to maintain the city's departments.

Its gas tax is currently outperforming the streetlight fee it replaced and the general services fee and construction excise tax continue to raise predictable revenue, though the latter has been producing diminished results during the recession.

And Knight and the other councilors seemed to be moving toward a consensus on reducing the general services fee instead of eliminating it.

But Knight said the political ground is now different, though he couldn't exactly say why eliminating the fee was back on his to-do list.

One thing is clear: the biggest winners in Knight's effort to eliminate the fee will be the city's big box retailers and Forest Grove schools.

Walmart pays the most in fees, $12,384 per year, and Fred Meyer pays $4,896 per year. The Forest Grove School District pays $10,944 for Echo Shaw and Cornelius elementary schools.

Knight pays $2,592 per year for his commercial properties.

The owner of a single-family home pays $84 per year.

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