Just in time for boating season, a change in state legislation in the coming months could give Cornelius tax revenue from the county's unincorporated areas to help patrol Lake Norman.
But county, city and town staff members are unsure when and how the legislative change would affect police enforcement and services on the lake, or what to do in the interim.
Currently, state statute dictates that in counties of 500,000 residents or more, only county-wide law enforcement agencies can patrol unincorporated areas. Since Cornelius only annexed the lake to the high-water mark, all of the water off its 75 miles of shoreline is considered unincorporated.
But Michelle Lancaster, general manager for Mecklenburg County, said a request for the state to change that law is on the county's legislative agenda. A decision could be reached in June or July, she said.
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Since Bence Hoyle became Cornelius's police chief four years ago, it has been one of his priorities to gain responsibility over the part of the lake that falls within Cornelius town limits.
"Charlotte does a very good job when they're out there, but they only patrol the lake part time," said Hoyle. "We'd be able to provide a very rapid response time because we're already out here."
During the off season, Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department's lake unit works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and until 11 p.m. two nights a week, although hours may vary, said Sgt. Mark Faulkenberry of the Lakes Enforcement Unit.
Patrols are beefed up during the summer to also include shifts from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
CMPD also patrols the lake off the shores of Davidson and Huntersville.
Four CMPD officers work full time during the off season, and two additional seasonal officers come on during boating season, said Faulkenberry.
Cornelius resident Dan Stehle, who is also a member of the Lake Norman Marine Commission, said the part-time police presence on the lake is an ongoing concern for many residents, especially when it comes to late-night boat robberies and other incidents.
"It's an easy target because they know no one's going to be on the lake to chase them. Unless someone catches them, they're on the boat, into the lake, and they're off scot free," said Stehle, who emphasized that he is satisfied with CMPD's work during the hours its officers are on the lake.
CMPD spokesman Robert Fey said in a statement that the department would review its operating procedures if the department was made aware of any tangible evidence that the department was not adequately ensuring the public safety on the lake.
But while Hoyle has made response times a focus for his argument that Cornelius should have responsibility over the lake, Faulkenberry said it's hard to quantify response times on the lake accurately.
Still, some residents of Cornelius have anecdotes about waiting too long for Charlotte police to arrive during off hours.
"The problem is that they don't have a dispatch on the lake so that they have to send the officers from uptown. Because of that, emergency response time is wholly inadequate," said resident Rick Lazes.
Rob Tufano, a CMPD spokesman, said the department has offered Cornelius police the use of their boat and equipment during off hours. CMPD would cover maintenance and fuel. Cornelius would pay the salaries of its officers, said Tufano.
But Hoyle said his department can't beef up their lake patrol without funding.
Currently, the 50,000 residents who live in the unincorporated parts of the county pay a law-enforcement service district tax. For the current fiscal year, the county paid the city about $13 million for patrolling the county's unincorporated areas. From that money, the county pays CMPD to patrol all of the unincorporated areas of the county, which includes the county's man-made lakes and other areas.
Of the 90 miles of Lake Norman shoreline in Mecklenburg County, Cornelius has 75 miles.
During the four years that Hoyle has petitioned for Cornelius to have responsibility over the lake, he has said Cornelius could patrol the same area for the same money with a quicker response time for more hours a day. But the department needs tax revenue to help pay for lake patrol salaries and maintenance and equipment costs.
In the interim of any legislative change, Hoyle said he would like to see CMPD sub-contract with Cornelius to patrol the territory. Although a change would be subject to approval by the town board, he added.
But CMPD officials have said that decision would need to be made between the county and Cornelius, while Lancaster said the issue would need to be worked out between Charlotte and Cornelius.
Lancaster added that the county would not be able to make any changes to the current patrol structure on Lake Norman until there was a legislative change.
"The county is looking to change the law to have multiple agreements with municipalities to patrol their unincorporated areas," she said. "But for now, we're stuck with a law that limits our options."