That's when Commissioner Chuck Travis suggested another two weeks before approving a budget would "... give the public one more opportunity to come out and speak."
At that time, there were four reporters and one citizen in the meeting chamber audience, and the three other attendees who previously spoke in the meeting, before leaving early, directed their comments toward subjects other than the budget itself. That prompted Finance Director Jackie Huffman to stand up and say she is all for public participation in the budget process, but Cornelius' history would suggest otherwise.
"I've been involved in government service for 17 years and I can count the number of people who have spoken on the budget on one hand," Huffman said.
It doesn't even take one hand to count those who have spoken in open forum about this year's budget discussions. No members of the public have attended scheduled budget pre-meeting workshops and none have spoken directly to the budget during regular meetings. How many e-mails commissioners have received about the budget is unknown, but on the record, as far as Cornelius taxpayers are concerned, mum's the word.
Commissioners appear poised to approve a property tax rate of 24 cents per $100 value, a reduction over last year's rate of 25 cents, which, in the wake of Mecklenburg County's revaluation, netted a windfall of about $2 million. Commissioner Dave Gilroy prefers a closer-to-revenue-neutral rate of 23 cents per $100 value, But with a burgeoning wish list of capital projects that would require an eventual bond referendum to address, the need to fund fire and rescue an additional $135,000 to fill a county funding shortfall, losing Huntersvillle's significant contribution to the operation of the 911 call center operated by the Cornelius Police Department and other needs, the $480,000 one cent on the tax rate means to the town seems to be the preferred option.
Significantly impacting the capital side of the budget is the apparent plan to turn Exit 28, which will begin a rebuild next fall by the N.C. Department of Transportation as a DDI, into a premier gateway to the town, and at the same time bridge — both literally and figuratively — the two sides of Cornelius divided by I-77.
With a deadline looming to bring a concept design to a meeting with NCDOT engineers later this month, Assistant Town Manager Andrew Grant — as he has at the previous two town board meetings — urged the board to commit at least to the design placeholder in the budget and to some level of a scaled-down version of the original $4.2 million proposal, or the town will miss the window of opportunity and design work on the bridge, minus the aesthetics, will begin.
"This time I really mean it," Grant told commissioners.
'Not happy with it'
Commissioners have had a concept of the DDI aesthetics provided by Ratio Public Art for more than two months, and Monday night they seemed farther away from any consensus about the design than ever.
Commissioner John Bradford said he doesn't want to feel backed into a corner to make a decision and asked if there was enough time to open up the project to local architects and designers. Grant told him that there was not.
The full-blown design calls for brick-faced bridge abutments, a blue fascia, rope-like rails that light up at night and resemble waves, the town's name lettered over the travel lanes, extensive landscaping on the sides and on pedestrian refuges and traffic islands, and a series of canopies over the center pedestrian walkway that resemble sails.
The braid is the central theme, and the design is intended to both attract the attention of the traveling public, provide a nod toward the town's textile past and nautical present, reduce the perceived scale to the pedestrian level and effectively tie the two sides of town together.
Commissioner Jeff Hare, upon reflection, said he was concerned the bridge design was too trendy and wouldn't withstand the test of time. Gilroy two weeks ago wondered aloud if something more resembling a suspension bridge would provide a more classic design. He was told that because the bridge wasn't being rebuilt but rather reconfigured, tolerances for significant additional weight were not available.
Mostly, the board is suffering from sticker shock, which was delivered a month ago when told by Ratio consultants that the estimated price tag for the project is $4.2 million. That's on top of the $1 million estimated to do the basics of burying power lines, installing mast arms to hold traffic signals, landscaping and minimal concrete enhancements.
Since then, Grant and other staff have been working to "value engineer" the project down to the lowest possible cost, then provide options to commissioners for removing some aspects of the design. The board seemed to reach consensus to eliminate the wavy "rails," but widespread agreement on any other aspects was fleeting.
"I'm just not happy with it guys. I'm just not," said Bradford. Commissioner Lynette Rinker, who is the board's most vocal proponent of the project, responded, "I wish we had heard that a month ago."
Grant reminded Bradford and the rest of the board that the project design was fully vetted with public participation, beginning with a three-day planning charette, continuing with committee meetings and public presentations. Ratio was selected after a thorough request for performance process, and the design before the board is the result of best practice processes by Ratio, which Travis described as "the cream of the crop."
"I really don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water," said Travis about the idea of starting from scratch.
Rinker pointed out that the town plans to spend $1 million to bury power lines and remove utility poles around the interchange, which she says will be barely noticeable to regular users.
"We are okay with spending $1 million and it's not going to look appreciably different that it does today," Rinker said. "What we are really looking for is something that is going to be an enhancement. You're looking for the 'wow.' What we really should be talking about is, is it worth a million to bury utilities because we're not going to get payback on that, period. What we are going to get payback on is the 'wow.'
That payback, town officials hope, is the ability to draw more traffic off the interstate to dine in the town's restaurants and shop in its stores, encourage more overnight stays and longer-term visits, create a sense of place and enhance civic pride, and help stimulate economic development.
Grant says the clock starts ticking on June 20. Commissioners don't have to decide just yet which elements of the design they want to keep for the project, which is currently capped at $2.2 million, including the basic enhancements. He has to take conceptual drawings to state engineers at that time to have them included in the DDI project, even if there are minor alterations after the fact.
Although there remains on consensus on the bridge design, Grant did get the go-ahead to move forward with the state with the caveat that staff takes the design through a process to obtain more accurate cost estimates in stages to ensure it remains within the overall budget. The board meets next on Monday, June 18.