Still No Transparency Or Accountability For HFD, Inc.

Another town budget will be voted on next month and based on the recent presentation by Chief Dotoli it seems obvious the town board and town manager intend to continue to give Huntersville Fire Department, Inc. a pass on transparency and accountability. HFD, Inc. is only asking for a mere $4.4 million from Huntersville taxpayers in the FY 19/20 budget, a 12.3% increase over their budget last year, so what’s the big deal if taxpayers have almost no control over how and where that $4.4 million is spent. And just a reminder that HFD, Inc. is not actually a department of the town, but a non-profit corporation that contracts with Huntersville to provide fire, rescue, and other emergency services.

Every year various “external agencies” request monies from taxpayers for their specific organization/cause – often a charitable cause. [You may recall the prior town board approved new guidelines for appropriating monies to external agencies.] In this FY 19/20 budget, $4,664,103 is being requested by external agencies with the overwhelming majority, $4.4 million, being requested by HFD, Inc. At the town board pre-meeting on April 1, the town board heard from some of the external agencies requesting money from taxpayers in this year’s budget. The four groups besides HFD, Inc. that sent speakers to the April 1 pre-meeting represent a total budget request of $54K (Crime Stoppers $2K, Hugh Torance $12K, Ada Jenkins $20K, and Latta Plantation $20K) so it made total sense to give these four groups the majority of the 60 minute pre-meeting while only requiring HFD, Inc. Chief Dotoli spend approx. 18 minutes at the podium to justify his group’s $4.4 million request.

It’s an election year so I know nothing I write is going to change how this board operates when it comes to oversight of the HFD, Inc. budget because politicians care more about counting votes than doing the right thing, but here are a few questions nonetheless.

The HFD, Inc. FY 19/20 budget presentation is included below for reference. Feel free to submit your own questions after you’ve reviewed the budget presentation.

  • 18 minutes? Seriously, that’s all the time the town board can find to question anyone from HFD, Inc. about their $4.4 million budget request??
  • Why did the HFD, Inc. budget presentation not break down calls by station? (i.e., How many fewer calls did Station 3 run compared to every other Station?)
  • Why is the town board and town manager STILL allowing HFD, Inc. to conduct a search for land for another new station after the debacle surrounding the site selection for Station 3? Huntersville taxpayers cannot afford another $3.5 million mistake like Station 3 that came about after a prior town board in 2008 neglected to question the circumstances around its site selection.
  • Why does Huntersville even need a Station 5 when Davidson’s new Station 2 is right across Hwy 73 in the general area where HFD, Inc. is claiming to be searching for land for a new station? Why hasn’t the town explored options to contract with Davidson Fire for coverage of the northeastern area of Huntersville?
  • Why is Chief Dotoli having lunch with someone from MEDIC to discuss medical calls? Didn’t Huntersville just abandon the North Meck Rescue Squad because HFD, Inc. was going to handle all medical calls and all fire calls and save the town money in the process?
  • Why hasn’t the town put the fire services contract out for competitive bid yet?
  • Why have there been no efforts to renegotiate the current fire services contract with HFD, Inc. to include greater transparency and accountability provisions? Try sending a few questions to HFD, Inc. about how they spend your tax dollars and maybe you’ll get your own no contact letter from an attorney at the McIntosh Law Firm!
  • Why exactly does HFD, Inc. need to budget $11,500 for legal fees? It can’t possibly cost that much to send no contact letters to Huntersville residents who just want to know how their money is being spent.
  • Why didn’t Commissioners Melinda Bales and Nick Walsh ask a single question of Chief Dotoli during his budget presentation? Put someone from the new management company at (the now profitable) HFFA at the podium and Bales and Walsh can’t stop asking questions – but a $4.4 million request from HFD, Inc.? Crickets.
  • Why isn’t there a town board liaison for HFD, Inc.? We have liaisons for the (now very profitable) HFFA, but no liaisons for HFD, Inc.?
  • Not a single town board member wanted to know how HFD, Inc. calculates $1.6 million in “losses per incident” and how that supposedly measures performance?
  • The HFD, Inc. budget request includes a $1.50 raise for all part-time employees. How many of HFD, Inc.’s employees are part-time and how many are full-time? How many of HFD, Inc.’s “part-time” employees are “full-time” employees at another agency (Charlotte Fire, East Lincoln, etc.)? How was the “average” rate of $15/hr for firefighters in Mecklenburg County arrived at? Is this an average starting part-time rate or the average rate of all pay in Mecklenburg County?

If transparency and accountability are important to you, maybe considering letting your current town board know before they vote on the budget next month. Sure it’s possible the town manager doesn’t recommend the full $4.4 million in his recommended budget, but whatever the amount the town board agrees to fund HFD, Inc. you as the taxpayer will still have almost no control over where and how that money is spent. This situation will never improve if we keep electing politicians who are afraid to challenge HFD, Inc. because they don’t want to lose votes in an election year. And it definitely won’t improve if we elect full-time candidate Joe Sailers. [Full disclosure – Mr. Sailers has a family member who is a firefighter at HFD, Inc.]

Eric

HFD-19-20-budget-request

Melinda Bales Goes From Wrong To Hypocrite About HFFA

I’m just going to keep beating this dead horse until it’s really dead.

Commissioner Melinda Bales used to be merely wrong in her opposition to a management change at HFFA, but after her comments at Monday night’s town board meeting she now can also be labeled a hypocrite when it comes to her “concerns” about HFFA. A hypocritical politician, shocking, I know.

It was just last month that Commissioner Bales tried to score a a few political points by grandstanding from the dais on the great sponsorship deal the management company at HFFA, Swim Club Management Group (“SCMG”), was able to secure with Atrium Health. She was back at it again during this week’s town board meeting by trying to defer until the April 1 town board meeting a decision on a revised services contract between the town and SCMG because of her “concerns” about the contract. What, exactly, were her stated “concerns” about the revised contract? An automatic renewal provision included in the contract and not having had enough time to review a basic 20-page contract – essentially the same contract the town signed with SCMG back in October 2017.

If only Huntersville had a full-time town attorney to help town board members answer any questions they may have about pending contracts…

So, what makes Commissioner Bales a hypocrite when it comes to her “concerns” about HFFA?

First, she never voiced any objection or concern about the revised management contract for the prior management company at HFFA, Health & Sports Works (“HSW”), not being made available until the morning of the town board meeting on October 19, 2015 when Commissioner Bales voted in favor of a contract extension for HSW. And that revised management contract included a significant, substantive change to the terms of the agreement, namely severance for HSW employees, that was never debated prior to Commissioner Bales’ vote.

Second, she never voiced any objection or concern about the auto-renewal (or mutually agreed upon renewal) clause in the services agreement with Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. (the separate, non-profit entity the town contracts with for emergency services) when she voted in favor of renewing that five-year contract during the August 7, 2017 town board meeting.

Just a reminder, Commissioner Bales has STILL never apologized for publicly making unfounded assertions of collusion against SCMG during a town board meeting.

Policy disagreements are one thing, it’s quite another thing when an elected official actively and intentionally attempts to sabotage an existing business relationship with a partner who is making the town money at a facility the taxpayers were told for years could never be profitable (just one of the many things former town board member Ron Julian was wrong about – the same Ron Julian who screwed Huntersville taxpayers out of over $90K and who was a prominent supporter of Commissioner Bales’ reelection bid in 2017). Now, after over 15+ years of losing money under the prior management, HFFA continues to provide a valuable service to residents while actually making money and working towards paying off the $5.1 million in debt owed back to the town. Sure, this revised contract provides SCMG the opportunity to earn large annual bonuses, but only if HFFA earns a profit. If HFFA loses money, SCMG doesn’t earn a bonus unlike the prior management company that was paid regardless of how much money they lost taxpayers. What a novel problem to have at HFFA, worrying about how much PROFIT the management company might have to share with the town.

Taxpayers will never know how much money was truly wasted and lost at HFFA before SCMG took over the management role, and yet Commissioner Bales (and former Commissioner Kidwell and many, many other former elected officials) defended the prior management company for years and blocked any efforts to bring in competition for the management position. Huntersville needs people on our town board who put what is right for the taxpayers ahead of what is right for their political campaigns.

Oh, and in case you missed it, SCMG recently announced another fantastic sponsorship deal at HFFA with SwimMac.

Eric

Melinda Bales Reaffirms Her Commitment to Being Wrong About HFFA

Dr. Jake Houseman: I know you weren’t the one who got Penny in trouble.

Johnny Castle: Yeah.

Dr. Jake Houseman: When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.

– 1987 Best Picture Winner: Dirty Dancing

Everyone loves a sincere apology because everyone can relate to being wrong. Everyone except politicians. Even when they lose an election it’s always the voters who were wrong, never them. Politicians in Huntersville are no exception.

Near the end of Monday night’s four-hour long town board meeting, Commissioner Melinda Bales took yet another opportunity to be completely wrong about an issue related to Swim Club Management Group (“SCMG”), the current management company at the Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics facility (“HFFA”). This time it was about whether Section 7.(e)(5) of the current management contract between the town and SCMG requires Town Board approval of all sponsorship agreements. Her comments at the meeting [3:53:00 mark] were related to Item 8.B. on the agenda – Approve sponsorship agreement with Atrium Health – and were made in an exchange with Zach Brown, the Executive Director at HFFA.

[Bales] “Since we really hadn’t heard about it (the sponsorship deal) prior to it being put on the agenda, can you elaborate for us how we got here since our contract with SCMG states that sponsorships get the approval with the Board and this contract (the sponsorship deal with Atrium Health) has already been signed? So, this is kind of rubber stamping it. Again, I have no complaints about the agreement, I just want to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again and that we are working in concert with one another.”

Mr. Brown then advised Commissioner Bales that SCMG had, in fact, reviewed the proposed sponsorship agreement with both the town attorney AND town staff prior to it being signed. Only at this point does it appear to dawn on Commissioner Bales that she was wrong about the sponsorship agreement needing Town Board approval.

The relevant language in the management contract states, “All sponsorship agreement [sic] shall be approved by the Town…” The contract was signed by the CEO of SCMG, a prior town manager, our town’s CFO, and the prior town attorney. No one on the town board at the time was a signatory to the contract. Instead of taking five minutes to discuss Section 7.(e)(5) of the contract before the meeting with our full-time town attorney, Commissioner Bales thought she had a “gotcha” moment ready for the large crowd in attendance.

We should expect more from our Mayor Pro Tem.

Commissioner Bales has been opposed to SCMG since the beginning. She opposed even putting the HFFA management contract out for bid in October 2015 and she voted against awarding the management contract to SCMG in July 2017. She even went line by line through part of HFFA’s budget projections during the May 14, 2018 budget workshop in an effort to find some evidence of wrongdoing when she never went through that level of budget detail with the prior management company. She can’t afford for SCMG to continue to succeed at HFFA because it means she was wrong. And she can’t admit she was wrong.

The same Commissioner Bales who publicly made unfounded assertions of collusion against SCMG during a board meeting and has STILL never apologized for those assertions had the audacity at Monday night’s meeting to complain that she wasn’t involved in the sponsorship agreement negotiations. She had absolutely no role in bringing about this great deal for the town, but she expects SCMG to share details with her about confidential negotiations simply because she has the made-up title of HFFA “liaison?” Commissioners do not know everything that goes on in town hall – we have a professional town manager and town staff to handle the majority of the day to day operations of the town. Commissioner Bales also didn’t know about a former town board member screwing taxpayers out of over $90K while she was on the board until it was reported by a local wannabe journalist, but I don’t seem to recall her ever once complaining about this gap in her knowledge during a town board meeting.

All of us make mistakes, but most of us apologize, learn from our mistakes, and move on. It’s clear by now that Commissioner Bales will never admit she was wrong to oppose a change at HFFA, which means she doesn’t want to learn from her mistake. It’s time Huntersville moved on from this type of petty behavior. We should expect more from our representatives on the Town Board.

Eric

New Management Finally Running HFFA Like Actual Business

After yet another legitimate business-like decision, residents and Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics (“HFFA”) members are convinced the new management team is serious about running the business like an actual business for the first time since it opened over 15 years ago. A new title sponsorship deal at HFFA with Atrium Health was announced last Friday worth far more than the title sponsorship deal with the prior sponsor. This came about thanks to Swim Club Management Group (“SCMG”) engaging in what’s known in the business world as “negotiating.” A three-year deal with Atrium Health worth $65K a year plus other value-added offerings to HFFA members not currently available is a great deal for HFFA members and Huntersville taxpayers. And this on top of the recent news that HFFA actually posted a $102K revenue GAIN from July-October 2018 compared with a $117K revenue LOSS during the same period in 2017!

So why do I get the feeling not everyone in town was excited to hear the positive news last Friday night?

When the new management team, SCMG, was awarded the bid at the July 11, 2017 town board meeting after a long overdue competitive bid process, many people in town were skeptical of all their fancy promises about working to improve the existing contracts they had inherited, listening to what their customers wanted, and requiring members to actually pay their dues every month. Two town board members at the time, Melinda Bales and Rob Kidwell, even voted against the management change because they preferred the prior management team’s business model of losing money every year but hoping the public never noticed. Long time readers will also recall Commissioner Bales made unfounded assertions of collusion against SCMG during that July 11, 2017 meeting that she has still never apologized for.

If there’s one area in which SCMG could improve it’s in the self-promotion department. The bottom line usually speaks for itself in the business world, but SCMG chose to get involved in the political world when it took on the HFFA management contract. In the political world it’s who benefits that matters more than the bottom line. The news about the new title sponsorship deal prompted me to finish this article that I had been meaning to finish ever since hearing SCMG give their presentation to the town board back on Nov. 19, 2018 – because not enough people have heard the good news about what SCMG is doing at HFFA in just their first year of full-time management. (I would encourage you to watch the presentation for yourself beginning at the 28:30 mark here.)

Residents who there during SCMG’s presentation to the town board on Nov. 19 heard Zach Brown, the HFFA manager, and local marketing expert Peter Laatz detail some of the positive news like customer satisfaction rates being up and a dramatically improved NPS score. The board also heard from Brian Sheehan, SCMG CEO, who went through some of the financial facts and figures showing the much-improved financial situation at HFFA in just one year. You can download the slideshow presentations yourself below until I figure out how to add slideshows to this site.

The only question residents and HFFA members should be asking is why didn’t a prior town board make this management change sooner?

Current Mayor pro tem Melinda Bales has been consistently opposed to putting the HFFA management contract out for bid. She opposed a competitive bid process in October 2015, the last time the contract was up for renewal, along with commissioners Ron Julian, Sarah McAulay, and Jeff Neely and the prior mayor. Former two-term commissioner, Rob Kidwell, who has been very open about his intentions to run for mayor this year (for those who don’t know, 2019 is an election year in Huntersville), did vote against the contract renewal back in October 2015 when it didn’t matter – he knew he could safely vote no because the votes weren’t there for putting the contract out for a competitive bid. Coincidentally enough, many of the same people who were in favor of maintaining the status quo at HFFA back in October 2015 and July 2017 are now supporting the unofficial Kidwell for Mayor campaign.

Neither Commissioner Bales nor Mr. Kidwell has publicly acknowledged the success that SCMG is having at HFFA since they were awarded the management contract in July 2017. They can’t afford to admit they voted the wrong way. Commissioner Bales had nothing to say during the recent Nov. 19 HFFA presentation and neither of them has had anything to say yet about the great new sponsorship deal with Atrium Health. Their silence on the success at HFFA speaks volumes

Huntersville taxpayers can’t afford to revisit the failures of the past now that progress is finally being made at HFFA thanks to SCMG. Just something to keep in mind as the 2019 election season gets rolling in a few months.

Eric

Huntersville Board Agenda – Jan. 22, 2019

Full agenda packet for tomorrow night’s town board meeting can be found here. The regular meeting begins at 6:30, pre-meeting starts at 5:45. Plan on watching it via FB live again this week due to work still being done to implement the town’s new A/V system (work on the new system has started at least).

The agenda packet is only 26 pages so this should be a short meeting, only two items on the consent agenda. One public hearing called for next month on allowing golf driving ranges in rural districts and approval of an easement agreement with Verizon.

The most interesting item will be during the pre-meeting when the newly formed “Public Arts Commission” intends to ask for $10K in public funding. If you’ll recall, this group was created by a 3-2 vote (Commissioners Boone and Phillips opposed, Commissioner Gibbons absent) at the March 19, 2018 town board meeting. According to the draft minutes from their Jan. 9, 2019 meeting – the Arts Commission’s chair, Scott Mumma, intends to ask the board for $10K in the FY19/20 Budget, $5K to be used to seek matching grants and $5K for “membership costs” to be paid to at least two art affiliated organizations outside of Huntersville. Less than a year old and already wanting taxpayers to give them $10K… thanks, Commissioners Bales, Hines, and Walsh! Remember, government only grows in one direction.

Eric

Chief’s Departure Signals Positive Opportunity For HPD

After almost five years on the job, Huntersville Police Department Chief Cleveland Spruill provided his resignation to the town last Friday, December 14. He started with HPD in May 2014 after a long career in law enforcement that began in 1987. People immediately started asking why the seemingly sudden resignation, but rumors of the chief’s potential departure have been circulating for weeks now, especially over at HPD HQ. Another rumor that I still haven’t been able to confirm yet is that the town is considering giving Chief Spruill the Bearcat as a retirement present.

In case you’re worried about how the chief is going to pay the bills, don’t. He’ll likely be receiving his Special Separation Allowance (“SSA”) courtesy of Huntersville taxpayers once his retirement is official next month. What is the SSA you’re probably asking? Just a special benefit provided to eligible retired law enforcement in NC to see them through to social security eligibility when they reach the age of 62. Huntersville taxpayers are currently paying for this benefit for two other individuals.

So why does the chief’s departure signal a positive opportunity for HPD? Because the town now has a great opportunity to finally fix the morale problems that have been plaguing the department for years now, even before Chief Spruill was named chief. As I’ve already pointed out, low pay isn’t what’s wrong at HPD if you talk to the rank and file officers. And it appears the town has finally decided to do something about the real problems at HPD by naming an interim chief from outside the ranks of the current HPD leadership. The same problems I’ve written about before still apparently exist at HPD (abuse of surveillance equipment, abuse of the take home vehicle policy, abuse of overtime, etc.) so Interim Chief Bence Hoyle is going to have his hands full when he takes over in early January.

Sources within HPD have been reaching out to me since the news of Chief Spruill’s resignation last week to share some thoughts. No officer is still willing to speak on the record for fear of retaliation – which is justified since from what I hear command staff has been doing everything they can to find out who all is talking to me.

Regarding the breaking news last week – one source stated, “Most of us were jumping for joy when the news was made official. Now a few more in leadership need to be next on the chopping block.”

Regarding the next chief – the same source stated, “The worst possible mistake would be to just promote from within the current leadership ranks. The town needs to cut ties with most of the ranking command staff and maybe even demote or fire some of the lieutenants.”

Regarding Spruill’s time as chief – another source stated, “When Spruill came in, things temporarily improved, but he allowed command staff too much control so the problems under Potter continued. Spruill eventually seemed to disconnect from the department and many rank and file officers for unknown reasons. He let too many in command just tell him what he wanted to hear, while those same command staff undermined him behind his back as if they wanted to set him up for failure. These same people will now do whatever it takes to protect themselves when the interim chief starts in January.”

Here’s a suggestion for the incoming interim chief – instead of wasting time trying to find out who all is talking to me, why not spend time attempting to fix what’s wrong with the department and then no one will have a reason to talk to me. Might I suggest something easy like an anonymous, legitimate survey amongst all the officers as a start to get some honest feedback? For example, feedback like this from another source about HPD HQ being used like a free afterschool daycare. “How is it fair that Major Graham, who makes over $100K, has his kid dropped off at HQ in the afternoons after school and is allowed to hang out for 2-3 hours and run all over the place? If this kid gets hurt at HQ who is responsible? What if a criminal gets loose or if a major call comes in – who is going to babysit the kid while we’re all responding to the call?”

How is that fair, indeed. When leadership gets to play by different rules, whether at HPD or any other company/organization, we all know what effect that has on morale.

The town has a great opportunity to finally fix some of the problems at HPD when the interim chief starts in a few short days. And the town manager is going to have a very important decision to make when it comes to naming a full-time replacement for Chief Spruill in the next few months. Let’s hope we keep moving Huntersville in the right direction with a chief who will finally hold all officers to the same standards and require command staff to be accountable for their actions and the actions of their subordinates.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Huntersville.

Eric

Smile, Huntersville, HPD Is Watching You

Digital video cameras, covert audio recording systems, pole camera systems, cell phone surveillance systems, license plate readers, and GPS trackers. And this is just the surveillance equipment we know about. Why does the Huntersville Police Department need all of this surveillance equipment and who are they tracking with it? Is HPD violating our civil liberties? Is HPD using GPS trackers in violation of the law to circumvent the warrant process? Let’s hope not since the law is pretty clear on this being a super no-no. If you’ve ever been pulled over by HPD on questionable grounds and you’d like to share your story, feel free to reach out, your privacy will be protected.

[Six (6) page document below. You can click through the pages by using the arrows at the bottom of the document.]

HPD surveillance response

Where is the town board on this issue? Who is providing oversight on all of this surveillance? What data is HPD collecting on residents? Who are they sharing this data with? Why is the town board not concerned about the potential for abuse this stockpile of surveillance equipment poses? What good is all this surveillance equipment if the town can’t even keep Public Works equipment from getting stolen (twice this year already!)? Why is HPD sitting on over $600K in asset forfeiture funds as of May? The town board should be demanding answers from HPD at Monday night’s town board meeting about all of this surveillance equipment, but they won’t. And the unsupervised surveillance of Huntersville residents, any anyone who travels through Huntersville, will continue…

But hey, if you don’t have anything to hide you shouldn’t be worried about HPD watching you, right?

Eric