Huntersville Board agenda – Feb. 20, 2017

There is a town board meeting tonight at 6:30pm – the pre-meeting starts at 5pm. You can view the agenda or download the full agenda packet here. You can watch a live stream of tonight’s meeting at the town’s Ustream page here. I can’t cover every agenda item so I always encourage residents to review these agendas and discuss any items of interest with the mayor or a board member because even a single motivated resident can make a difference on how the votes turn out on some of these items.

Other Business:

– Item D: The board will consider whether to authorize up to $100,000 for yet another transportation study, this time focusing on northwest Huntersville and the proposed extensions of Birkdale Commons Pkwy, Hugh Torance Pkwy, and Ervin Cook Rd. The good news is that CRTPO has agreed to provide up to $50,000 in reimbursement at the conclusion of the study – of course, the reimbursement would still come from taxpayer dollars so I’m not sure how that makes it any better. My question, has this corridor never been studied before? If it has, why is another study needed? [Update: passed 5-1]

– Item F: The board will consider appointments to the recently formed Ordinance Advisory Board. Three members with expiring terms are seeking to be re-appointed, but there are 14 other applications listed so there’s clearly a high interest level among Huntersville residents to get involved with this advisory board. [Update: all three current members were re-appointed – Hines, Henson, and Walsh]

Consent Agenda:

– Item C: The board is being asked to appropriate $2,340.99 to the Huntersville police department’s insurance account. Why you may be asking? Likely because of a motor vehicle accident involving a police vehicle, but that would just be an educated guess since the town consistently declines to specify the basis for this frequent consent agenda item. And who is responsible for repairing police vehicles that have been damaged in an accident? [Update: after Commissioner Boone removed this item from Consent, Chief Spruill advised this was related to an MVA during a high-speed chase on I-77. He also advised there were only two facilities in the area capable of performing all necessary repairs to police vehicles and that the police vehicles are repaired at the least expensive of these two options – the Toyota Collision Center at Toyota of North Charlotte.]

– Item G: If approved, a public hearing will be called for March 20 to consider corporate welfare an economic development incentive grant to new Huntersville business Oerlikon Metro. According to the Charlotte Observer article on this job announcement, the expansion is possible because of a $1 million incentive grant from the One North Carolina Fund. According to the OneNC site, corporate welfare awards are allocated to local governments as part of a negotiated challenge grant. By statute, OneNC requires that a local government provide an incentive to match the OneNC funding. The required local match depends on the tier designation of the county – in a Tier 3 county the local government must provide no less than a dollar for dollar match of the OneNC grant, although the matching funds can take various forms including cash, in-kind services, or donations of land. Mecklenburg County is designated a Tier 3 county by the Commerce Department. Of note, the local government may establish ALL OR PART of its match by securing PRIVATE COMMITMENTS of assistance to the project. How much, if any, of the local match will Huntersville work to obtain from private commitments?

Since Huntersville is in a Tier 3 county, this would seem to me to indicate the town will be on the hook for at least a million dollars of matching funds to ensure the Oerlikon Metro expansion. Strangely enough, Commissioner Bales neglected to include this information during her comments about the Oerlikon announcement at the February 6 board meeting. My question on this topic remains the same, how were any jobs ever created before the existence of the OneNC Fund and our current corporate welfare incentive system?

Oh, and of course the board will be going into closed session at the pre-meeting tonight to discuss the Oerlikon incentive even though it’s already public knowledge how much the state is providing because residents can’t be trusted to know how our elected officials intend to negotiate with our money. Fortunately the town is well aware that closed session minutes are public record so I’ll be sure to post an account of the minutes once I receive them.

Eric

Is Huntersville denying access to public records?

That’s the question after the town recently attempted to deny me access to the minutes from the closed session town board held on January 9. I was finally provided a copy of the redacted minutes on February 7, but only because I’m familiar with open meeting and public records laws and because I don’t mind being persistent. Is it possible other less persistent Huntersville residents have been denied access to records or information in the past?

For the record, none of the criticism below is directed towards the town clerk who has always promptly facilitated my many requests for records and information.

The Huntersville town board held a special meeting on January 9 for the purpose of accepting the resignation of former town manager Greg Ferguson. This special meeting was not live streamed. During this special meeting the town board went into closed session to discuss a personnel matter – the resignation of the town manager. NCGS 143-318.11 sets forth the situations when a public body is permitted to go into closed session.

According to the Lake Norman Citizen, the only media outlet in attendance at the special meeting, the closed session lasted over two hours. Given the lengthy time period of the closed session, I was interested in determining whether anything was discussed among the board that was unrelated to the specific personnel issue for which the closed session was called. I sent a request to the town on January 18 for a copy of the closed session minutes once they had been approved. I was informed the same day the closed session minutes cover personnel related matters and cannot be released and that I could speak with the town attorney [Bob Blythe] for an explanation – no exceptions were cited, just an outright denial. Mr. Blythe is a part-time employee of the town and his current base salary is $110,577.36.

I responded to the town’s denial by citing NCGS 143-318.10(e) and that I would discuss the legality of withholding the closed session minutes with the town attorney once they had been approved by the town board. NCGS 143-318.10(e) states in part: Every public body shall keep full and accurate minutes of all official meetings, including any closed sessions… such minutes and accounts shall be public records… however, minutes or an account of a closed session… may be withheld from public inspection so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session.

Six days later on January 24 I was informed that upon advice from the town’s employment attorney the town was precluded from releasing the requested minutes because NCGS 160A-168 takes precedence over NCGS 143-318.10(e). My immediate thoughts after receiving that email: 1) who is the town’s employment attorney and why did the town have to consult outside counsel to address such a basic open meetings issue; and 2) NCGS 160A-168 only deals with privacy of employee personnel records and does not provide for any outright ban on disclosure of closed session minutes dealing with a personnel matter.

I was later advised the town uses an attorney in the Raleigh office of Jackson Lewis P.C. at an hourly billable rate of $275 for shareholders, $225 for associate attorneys and $120 for paralegals. Are there no employment attorneys the town could contract with in Mecklenburg County, possibly at a lower hourly billing rate? The good news – the town only pays Jackson Lewis on an as needed basis and does not pay them an annual retainer unlike Smith Rodgers, PLLC, the law firm used by Huntersville Police Department at a minimum annual cost to taxpayers of $18,070.

I responded the same day on January 24 by requesting the town forward my email and the 2015 NC Court of Appeals case Times News Publishing Co. v. Alamance-Burlington Bd. of Ed. to the town’s employment attorney and that I would be available to discuss with either Mr. Blythe or the town’s employment attorney at their convenience. I never received a call from either attorney. The Times News case dealt with a very similar situation and is still good law in NC. I’d encourage anyone interested in open meeting and public records law in NC to read for yourself – it’s only twelve pages and can easily be understood by a non-lawyer.

I re-sent my request on February 7 for a general account of the January 9 closed session and received a redacted copy of the minutes later the same day. [See below.] But this apparently warranted further review by the town’s employment attorney to assist with the redaction. Again, why was outside counsel needed to comply with this request pursuant to straightforward NC statutory and case law and how much did this request end up costing the taxpayers of Huntersville? If I was immediately provided with the redacted minutes upon request on February 7, why did the town promptly deny my identical request sent on January 18? How do we know other citizens haven’t been wrongly denied records or information by the town in the past based on similar grounds?

Maybe instead of using taxpayer dollars to employ outside counsel to help with responding to basic records requests from residents, those taxpayer dollars would be better spent on requiring select town employees to attend an open meetings/public records training or CLE.

Eric

2017-01-09 Hville closed mins

 

Some final thoughts on CMS’s decision to hire Charles Jeter

My piece raising questions about CMS’s hiring of Charles Jeter was posted on the morning of January 17. The thorough piece written by Ann Doss Helms in the Charlotte Observer in response to my piece was posted at the Observer’s website at 3:45pm on January 19 (it came out in print in the Sunday edition on January 22). I finally received a response from CMS to the final two questions about the number of applicants and number of applicants interviewed at 5:54pm on January 19 – two hours after Ann’s piece was posted online at the Observer. CMS’s response echoed the numbers cited in Ann’s piece: four total applicants and three total applicants interviewed before the position was filled.

So why did it take the involvement of a Charlotte Observer reporter for CMS to provide me this information? How many other requests for records or information from residents/voters/parents go unanswered because the person making the request isn’t a reporter for the Observer?

The Observer piece only raised additional questions in my mind. First, CMS General Counsel George Battle III, who is paid at least $190,000 according to the most recent salary figures online, stated in the Observer, “Jeter’s predecessor didn’t register.” This seems contrary to filings at the NC Secretary of State’s Office showing Jonathan Sink registered as the local government liaison for CMS in January 2013.

If Mr. Jeter’s predecessor didn’t register, then why is his registration form at the Secretary of State’s Office? [See registration form below.]

Sink registration

Of note, page 2 of Mr. Sink’s registration form only lists one out of a possible thirty-one categories on which he intends to lobby – #9 Education. In comparison, Mr. Jeter’s registration form, signed on January 17, lists a staggering SIXTEEN categories on which he intends to lobby as the local government liaison for CMS – including #9 Education, but also including such categories as #22 Law Enforcement/Courts/Judges/Crimes/Prison, #26 Natural Resources/Forest Products/Fisheries/Mining Products, and #29 Transportation/Highways/Streets/Roads.

Why would the local government liaison for CMS ever need to lobby the general assembly about mining and mining products?? [See registration form below.]

Jeter registration

Second, Mr. Battle was quoted in the Observer denying responsibility for the refusal to release the applicant and interviewee numbers to me. If Mr. Battle was not responsible for making the determination on whether or not to provide the requested information to me, then who in the CMS Legal department did make this decision? Based on the email responses from my contact at CMS it seemed obvious CMS Legal was being consulted throughout this process. My initial request was sent on December 13 and the initial response from CMS was received on January 3 stating, “… awaiting a response from CMS Legal on whether [applicant and interviewee figures] can be released.” On January 6, CMS responded again stating, “… CMS Legal has determined that no records exist of this information.” The final email came from CMS Chief Communications Officer Kathryn Block but only referenced “CMS” in general, not CMS Legal, stating, “CMS has considered items four and five…”

If Mr. Battle didn’t make the decision to deny me the requested information, does that mean the CMS Communications Department is making determinations on what records/information is or is not disclosable under the law without consulting with CMS Legal?

Finally, I still want someone to explain to me how a local government liaison produces $91,000 worth of value to the taxpayers. Don’t worry, I’m not holding my breath…

On CMS’s decision to hire Charles Jeter

[Jan. 19, 2017 update – Thanks to Ann Doss Helms at the Charlotte Observer for writing a follow-up story today on this issue. You can read it here.]

Why did the Charlotte Observer need almost 650 words in their article on December 5, 2016 just to announce former elected official Charles Jeter (R) as the new government liaison for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools? It’s almost as if someone involved with CMS felt they really needed to justify to the taxpayers why this hire was worth at least $91,000 of their tax dollars a year. But, even after reading all those words in the online edition of the Observer I was still left with unanswered questions about CMS’s hiring of Mr. Jeter.

  • Why would a former politician who resigned unexpectedly at the end of July citing the need to devote time to his young family then apply for a job less than three months later that will likely require him to travel back and forth to Raleigh on a regular basis? And in case you didn’t follow the District 92 House race too closely – the seat flipped from (R) to (D) in November after Mr. Jeter’s unexpected resignation.
  • Why would CMS hire a former elected official when he would be prohibited from even doing his job until 6 months after he left office pursuant to the “cooling off” period for lobbyists in North Carolina? [See NCGS 120C-304(b).] This one was easily answered by the NC Ethics Commission after I started reviewing this issue. The 6 month “cooling off” period is not applicable to Mr. Jeter because he was actually hired as a local government liaison, not a lobbyist, and local government liaisons are only subject to Article 5 of the lobbying law according to this 2011 formal advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission. What’s the actual difference between a lobbyist and a local government liaison? Good question.
  • Even though he’s only a local government liaison, not a lobbyist, he still has to register as a liaison with the Secretary of State’s Office just like his predecessor. [See NCGS 120C-502(a).] Why then has Mr. Jeter still not registered as a liaison with the Secretary of State’s Office as of the morning of January 17, 2017? You can search for yourself here.
  • If he “got out of his trucking company” as the article stated, why is Mr. Jeter still listed as the President of this trucking company according to the Secretary of State’s website?
  • There are nine board members on the CMS Board of Education – why was only one, Rhonda Lennon from District 1 (which covers Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson), cited in the article as mentioning the job opportunity to a friend? When did Ms. Lennon mention this job opportunity to Mr. Jeter and how many other friends did she mention the job opportunity to? Surely other board members mentioned this great job opportunity to their friends as well, right?
  • Since Mr. Jeter said he went through a “lengthy selection process” in the Observer article, and since surely other board members mentioned this great opportunity to qualified friends, how many other qualified applicants did Mr. Jeter beat out for this $91,000 a year taxpayer funded job?

I decided to send a records request to CMS on Dec. 13, 2016 to help answer some of these questions. My requests are below along with CMS’s responses in italics.

1) The date the job was first publicly posted and all forms in which the public job posting occurred, e.g., online, newspaper, etc.; [Received January 3 – The position was posted on the CMS job board 10/7/16 – 10/14/16.]

2) The job description or any description of job duties listed; [Received January 4 – see below.]

3) The anticipated or expected salary range listed; [Received January 3 – As advertised in the job posting, the salary range is $71,572.00-$91,187.00.]

4) The number of total applicants applying for this position before it was filled; [Received January 3 – #4 and #5 are requests for information rather than records (I’m awaiting a response from CMS Legal on whether these items can be released)]

5) The total number of applicants interviewed for this position before it was filled; and

6) The date and manner in which an offer of employment was extended to Charles Jeter. [Received January 3 – Date and manner in which an offer of employment was extended is personnel information that isn’t open to public record.]

CMS_Job Description

After the initial responses from CMS we learned the job was only posted for one week and only at CMS’s job board. We also learned Mr. Jeter was hired at or very near the maximum salary since, according to the Observer article, his new job will pay him $91,000 a year. What we didn’t learn was how many other people applied and/or were interviewed for this job during the “lengthy selection process” described by Mr. Jeter or how long after the job posting was he actually offered the job.

On January 6 CMS finally responded to requests 4 & 5 by stating – CMS Legal has determined that no records exist of this information. I asked for clarification – Does this mean the answer to numbers 4 & 5 is zero (0) applicants? Or, does this response mean that no records exist of any applicants applying or interviewing, but that the number is not zero (0)? On January 9 CMS responded to my request for clarification – The response to points 4 and 5 is: there is no record(s) that exist pertaining to the applicant number or number of candidates interviewed.

Still not being satisfied since I originally requested records or information, I revised my request and asked another way – 4) How many total applicants applied for this position before it was filled; and 5) How many total applicants were interviewed for this position before it was filled. CMS responded the same day on January 9 – Thank you for your follow-up inquiry. The items requested in 4 & 5 do not fall in the category of personnel information that is defined in the personnel privacy statutes as public information. Additionally, we have a concern that disclosing such information runs the risk of someone being able to identify the applicants and that would be a disclosure in violation of the personnel privacy laws.

Now we were getting somewhere. So someone at CMS had determined requests 4 & 5 didn’t have to be answered because of personnel privacy laws. But what specific laws were they relying on? Again on January 9 I asked for additional information – Please have CMS Legal specify any and all statutes in support of their refusal to provide the requested information. The next day, January 10, CMS responded – NCGS 132-6.2(e) states that a public agency is not required to respond to records requests by “creating or compiling a record that does not exist.”

I still wasn’t satisfied with CMS’s response to what I thought was a simple question so on January 10 I requested a time to discuss over the phone. After not receiving a response I left a voicemail with my point of contact at CMS requesting the same. On January 11 the Chief Communications Officer at CMS, Kathryn Block, emailed the following response in part – CMS has considered items four and five and determined that disclosing such information runs the risk of someone being able to identify the applicants. This would represent a violation of personnel privacy laws. CMS takes the privacy of its employees and applicants very seriously. Therefore, we are unable to fulfill this portion of your request.

To recap: CMS initially declined responding to 4 & 5 because no records existed. No wait, they said, it’s because responding would violate personnel privacy laws. On second thought, they said, it’s definitely because no records exist and we don’t have to create records that don’t exist.  Seriously though, we can’t disclose the requested information because it would violate personnel privacy laws.

Which is it CMS, no records exist or disclosing the number of applicants and/or interviewees would violate personnel privacy laws?

I decided to consult with Jonathan Jones, Director of the NC Open Government Coalition, who helpfully explained the limitations of a records request. He stated, “[CMS] is only legally obligated to provide records and not information. That’s why it ends up being a potentially valid response to your requests. It’s not a valid response if a record does exist that would answer your request for information and they would rather withhold it for personnel reasons. You can’t argue both because  either the record exists or it doesn’t.”

Essentially, CMS responded to my questions about the number of applicants and interviewees with a “No Comment.” Fair enough. But, based on the job only being posted for one week at the CMS job board and based on CMS’s conflicting responses and absurd conclusion that revealing the number of applicants would somehow result in someone being able to determine the identity of an applicant, it’s also fair for me to infer there was only one applicant and one interviewee – Charles Jeter.

Another example of your tax dollars hard at work in Mecklenburg County.

Eric

 

Taxpayers still keeping HFFA afloat

This column originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. You can find my second HFFA column here. The column below is relevant once again because HSW (formally known as Health Works, Inc.), the management company in charge of the HFFA, is requesting $25,000 in bonus money per their contract with the town. The agenda for the upcoming board meeting on Tuesday night has the bonus money budget amendment request listed as Item K. under Other Business.

Interestingly, HSW is still using weighted metrics as outlined in their 2011 contract, not the weighted metrics outlined in their 2015 contract (attached below).  So upon further review it appears HSW is using the 2011 metrics because the 2015 contract was not effective until July 1, 2016. I assumed incorrectly the 2015 contract was effective immediately upon execution in October 2015, hence why it was rushed through by the prior board, but that’s clearly not the case.

Let’s hope this current board takes a more inquisitive approach to the self-serving metrics review document submitted by HSW in support of their bonus request than did the board in 2015.

Eric


The Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics facility located on Verhoeff Drive is partially funded by taxpayers. This may be common knowledge to longtime Huntersville residents, but many newer residents are likely unaware that tax dollars are used to support HFFA. You definitely wouldn’t know it based on the HFFA website, except for the small Huntersville town logo on the home page.

For those Huntersville residents who were living here in the late ’90s when the HFFA was originally proposed and voted on, don’t worry; this column will not rehash the contentious debate over whether funding a gym is a proper function of town government – mainly because it isn’t. But, since taxpayers are still funding this facility after more than a decade in existence, it is reasonable to question whether their tax dollars are being spent properly.

HFFA proponents like to point out that it has gone from an entity that was in need of funds from the General Fund to operate, to operating solely on hotel/motel/prepared food taxes. Politicians like these “good” taxes because it means avoiding taxing residents directly to fund their favored projects (unless you’re a Huntersville resident who chooses to patronize a Huntersville restaurant). While it’s true that general fund money is not currently used to keep the doors open at HFFA, it is used for any bonus paid to the management company, like the $50,000 approved in 2015. But this misses the larger point: What are the opportunity costs of using limited taxpayer funds to run a gym?

A few more facts most Huntersville residents without a passing familiarity on submitting records requests may not be aware of. The HFFA is managed by a company named Health & Sports Works. This company has managed the HFFA almost exclusively except for a short period immediately after it opened. The initial management contract in 2002 between Huntersville and HSW provided for a management fee of $30,000 for the first year, $40,000 for the second year, and a fee of $50,000 during each subsequent year.

The renegotiated contract in 2006 saw management fees significantly increased to $153,750 annually, along with a potential bonus payment of up to $50,000. In 2011, Huntersville renegotiated with HSW and agreed to an annual management fee of $158,362.50 (a strangely specific amount…) with the potential of a $50,000 bonus. Finally, two weeks before the recent election and eight months before the contract was set to expire on June 30, 2016, the prior town board voted 4-2 to approve a renegotiated contract with HSW at $183,564 annually. [See most recent 2015 HSW contract below]

HSW 2015

Going from $30,000 annually to $183,564 annually in little more than a decade sounds like a massive cost increase, but surely it’s because this is the market rate for managing a facility like HFFA, right? A reasonable question, but not one that was answered prior to the vote on Oct. 19, 2015, approving the renegotiated management contract, which was not even made available for public inspection at the town’s website until the morning of the vote.

The town manager made the decision not to put out the management contract for competitive bid, a decision that was fully supported by town board members Melinda Bales, Jeff Neely, Ron Julian and Sarah McAulay. State law does not mandate this type of contract be put out for competitive bid, but decision makers have no basis for comparison and are not ensuring tax dollars be spent in the most efficient manner possible without a bidding process. When the town can find time to request bids on landscape contracts costing between $46,000 and $65,000 annually (which was scheduled to be voted on at Tuesday night’s town board meeting), it is beyond implausible the HFFA management contract shouldn’t have been put out for bid.

The current HFFA management contract requires the town to pay a fee equal to six months of management fees if terminated prior to July 1, 2019. This gives the current town board at least three years to request a competitive bid be prepared to determine if HSW is indeed the only qualified company to manage the HFFA. Let’s hope that’s enough time.

On limited government and the HFFA

This column was supposed to have appeared in the Feb. 18, 2016 print edition of the Herald Weekly. It never appeared in print, however, it did end up online and can still be found at the Herald’s website. The Herald editor informed me she had received some questions about my initial HFFA column in January 2016 so I provided all source documentation and never heard anything further until she informed me after I submitted the second column on HFFA below that she was going to have to put the column on hold. I subsequently learned HFFA had decided to pull their advertising dollars from the Herald – to this day they continue their ad boycott of the Herald, but do continue to advertise in the other local weekly paper.

It’s usually frowned up for entities funded by taxpayer dollars – like the HFFA – to engage in viewpoint discrimination. Apparently the First Amendment isn’t high on the list of concerns of the Huntersville Town Board since the HFFA is still being funded by tax dollars.

Eric


Frederic Bastiat famously defined government as the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else. By this he simply meant that it is within our nature to seek the greatest amount of pleasure while expending the least amount of effort. Man can satisfy his endless wants and desires in one of two ways: by ceaseless labor and the application of his faculties to natural resources; or by seizing and consuming the products of the labors of other. This fatal tendency of man, to satisfy wants and desires with the least possible effort, is the origin of plunder, which is why Bastiat explains legislators should ensure the law maintains justice by protecting property and punishing plunder.

You’re probably asking, what does any of this have to do with the Huntersville Family Fitness and Aquatics center? The HFFA is just one example in Huntersville of the law being perverted by allowing taxpayer funding (i.e., the products of the labors of others) to be used to support, in my opinion, an improper function of town government. Many readers will disagree with this position and the idea of any limits on town government other than what a majority of the Town Board can agree to.

But, it is budget season in Huntersville and the proper function of town government is something that needs to be debated by our elected leaders when deciding how to allocate the scarce revenues available for the large number of potential beneficiaries. If less money went to HFFA, more money could be allocated for Rural Hill for example. Reasonable people can disagree over whether Rural Hill should receive any taxpayer funding, but based on current statutes they (along with Latta Planation, the Hugh Torance House & Store, Visit Lake Norman, etc.) are eligible to receive funding from the same pool of money used to fund HFFA. [See pg. 106 for funding levels here.]

Ideas and elections matter, even on a local level. The current Town Board was elected, in part, because voters disagreed with the prior board’s overall philosophy on governing, which could be summarized by a motto similar to the Panther’s this season – “Keep Spending.” While the makeup of the Town Board has changed, the same special interests remain and are intent on maintaining the status quo.

HFFA proponents will be heard to proclaim, but how will the citizens of Huntersville stay healthy if taxpayer dollars aren’t used to keep the HFFA open? And what about all of the “economic development” Huntersville benefits from by the HFFA hosting events?

To which I would respond, how do the citizens of Huntersville keep from starving without the town using taxpayer dollars to operate a grocery store? How did any Huntersville resident do sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, run or swim before the HFFA was built?

If we are to accept the premise that the HFFA should continue to be subsidized by taxpayer funding because it is the centerpiece for health in Huntersville and the surrounding communities and because of the alleged economic benefits, should it follow that all other sources of competition be eliminated to maximize these health and economic benefits? Should the Town Board close all other gyms and pools to increase membership at HFFA? When the non-taxpayer subsidized Fitness Center at Birkdale was forced to close due to financial reasons, many former members joined the HFFA. Think of the increased revenues at HFFA if all the gyms in Huntersville were closed and their members all joined the HFFA!

There remains approximately $1,022,940 [See pg. 68 of the audit here.] to be paid on the mortgage for the HFFA through the year 2020 before taxpayer dollars will no longer be necessary for debt service. The question for current Town Board members is what happens after 2020? Will taxpayer funding continue to be used for the current facility, or will HFFA finally be expected to become profitable?

These and other questions will persist as long as the law is used to take property from one person and give it to another and any attempts to censor such questions should be discouraged.

Forced charity isn’t charitable

This column originally appeared in the April 21, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. It’s an election year so it will be interesting to see how many requests for funding come in from external organizations and whether this town board ensures any such funding constitutes a “public purpose.”

Eric


If any readers are inclined to think my purpose in writing is to further my political aspirations, this column should put such notions to rest.

The Huntersville fiscal year 2016-17 budget is currently being prepared, so if you’re a Huntersville resident you still have an opportunity to influence how your tax dollars are spent before the budget is passed in June. You can view budgets going back to 2011-12 [this has since changed, ’14-’15 is the oldest budget available now online] on the town’s website under the finance department page to learn how your tax dollars have been spent in the past. If you do review any recent budgets, you’ll come across a section entitled “Special Appropriations.” [This was actually changed in the ’16-’17 budget after publication of this article. Items formerly under Special Appropriations can now be found under Hotel/Motel/Prepared Food Tax Fund.] The budget describes special appropriations as expenditures to external organizations for public purposes. A better description would be forced charity.

According to the UNC School of Government, the North Carolina Supreme Court has not specifically defined the term “public purpose,” but has decided the issue on a case by case basis. The N.C. Supreme Court uses two principles in determining what constitutes a public purpose: the activity must have a reasonable connection with an appropriate function of local government, and the activity must benefit the public generally as opposed to special interests or individuals.

Town commissioners approved $192,423 for Special Appropriations in last year’s budget without detailing any of the public purposes served. A larger amount was requested from the town but funding was denied to Angels of ’97 and Catawba Presbyterian Church, although Angels of ’97 has received at least $7,000 in the past. The majority of funding, $150,423, went to the Lake Norman Economic Development Corporation. The remaining $42,000 went to four organizations: $22,500 to ASC North; $15,000 to the Ada Jenkins Center; $2,000 to the Olde Huntersville Heritage Society; and $2,500 to Latta Plantation.

The town does require every organization seeking a taxpayer-funded Special Appropriation to fill out a form documenting the organization’s nonprofit status and describing how any funding would benefit the citizens of Huntersville. [See attached] This is helpful to those organizations that already know this source of funding exists, but information on how to request a Special Appropriation does not appear anywhere on the town’s website at present [and still doesn’t appear after a search today]. This lack of transparency should be corrected by the current town board if they intend to continue to provide taxpayer funding to external organizations.

Special Appropriations

Why focus on $42,000 out of an operating budget of over $33 million when the money is only going to help local nonprofits? Because every penny spent by government is money that could have been put to a more productive use if left in the private economy. Further, money taken by force and used by government on non-essential functions like charitable giving means less money is available for essential town functions like police, sanitation or roads and sidewalks. And if you disagree that government takes your money by force, I would encourage you to attempt to opt out of paying your local property or vehicle taxes this year and see how the Town of Huntersville responds.

As the population of Huntersville continues to increase, which will result in more revenues, the list of potential charities seeking taxpayer funding is only going to grow. How will the town board say no this year or in the future to a request from Ada Jenkins, Angels of ’97, the Olde Huntersville Heritage Society or any other organization when funding has been provided in the past? The inability of too many politicians to say no to funding non-essential functions of government is one of the reasons our national debt is over $19 trillion – a number that cannot and will not ever be repaid.

Most of us have little to no control over how Raleigh or Washington spends our money, but we do have some ability to influence how our money is spent locally. Let your town board members know prior to a vote on the budget if you agree that Huntersville should stop funding select charitable organizations and instead direct more money in this year’s budget to more important priorities.