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

Huntersville Candidate Continues Misleading Endorsement Claims

Even though we’re over a year away from the 2019 town board election here in Huntersville, one candidate has already started campaigning on social media where he is also continuing his pattern of making misleading endorsement claims.

As some of you may recall, Joe Sailers repeatedly claimed on social media and in person during the 2017 town board campaign that he was “endorsed by Police and Fire.” This claim is completely false. Mr. Sailers was endorsed by the Southern States Police Benevolent Association (“SSPBA”), not the Huntersville Police Department, and Huntersville Fire Department, Inc. (“HFD, Inc.”) is prohibited from endorsing candidates by law since they are organized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Another candidate was even forced to publicly correct the record for Mr. Sailers by citing the above facts after he repeated his misleading claim during a candidate forum at Northstone. But, as recently as last month, Mr. Sailers was still making the claim that “both the firefighters and police dept. supported me in 2017 and I hope they will do the same in 2019…”

While it’s true Mr. Sailers did receive the endorsement of the SSPBA, along with a campaign contribution of $1,000, it’s not as if the SSPBA endorsement was hard to come by during the 2017 campaign. The SSPBA spent over $36K on campaign contributions statewide in NC during the 2017 election, including contributions of $1,000 each to Huntersville candidates Melinda Bales, Dan Boone, Mark Gibbons, Brian Hines, and Nick Walsh. And yet these candidates were somehow able to refrain from making the misleading claim that they were endorsed by the Huntersville Police Department.

It’s also true that Mr. Sailers likely had the personal endorsement of many individual members of HFD, Inc. (Full disclosure – Mr. Sailers has a family member who is an HFD, Inc. firefighter.), but a personal endorsement does not equal an endorsement by the entire fire department. To the best of my knowledge, however, HFD, Inc. never publicly protested, nor made any effort to deny, Mr. Sailer’s claims during the campaign. In fact, HFD, Inc. even allowed one of Mr. Sailers’ family members to use one of their fire trucks to promote his candidacy during an event at Rural Hill last Fall.

Here’s what the IRS has to say about 501(c)(3) organizations like HFD, Inc. and political campaigns.

“Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

So why go after Mr. Sailers this far ahead of the 2019 election? Because he has already made public his intention to run again in 2019 on social media. More importantly, it is imperative the voters in Huntersville elect town board members who are going to do their research and ask tough questions and dig into every line item of every budget – even that of HFD, Inc.’s., instead of people like Mr. Sailers (and Walsh and Boone, and to a lesser extent Bales, who have made clear they have no intention of questioning HPD and HFD, Inc.) who wouldn’t question them at all.

Choosing to give HFD, Inc. the almost $600K budget increase they’re seeking this year will have consequences for all of us. Where will the money come from to pay for this budget increase? Will taxes have to go up next year, on top of the property tax increases already coming for most Huntersville homeowners because of revaluation? What if as a result of a tax increase by the town and property taxes also going up a family is forced to move out of Huntersville next year (or another family isn’t able to move here) because they can no longer afford to live here? Will the town board consider this and other potential consequences before agreeing to a budget increase for HFD, Inc. this year?

It’s a smart move politically, of course, to seek and claim the support of police and fire. Both local police officers and firefighters have spouses, children, and friends who are voters and that adds up to a lot of votes in a town with a low voter turnout in local elections. Chief Dotoli is already pushing for Station 5 when the paint on Station 4 is barely dry. Does the town even need a new fire station and who is going to decide where it goes – HFD, Inc. or the town board? If Mr. Sailers had been elected there wouldn’t be a question HFD, Inc. would get the budget increase they’re seeking and get the green light to build Station 5 wherever they want just like they did with Station 3.

With HFD, Inc. seeking almost $600K in new spending this year, HFD, Inc. already looking to build a new fire station, and with property revaluations coming next year, Huntersville taxpayers cannot afford to have board members like Mr. Sailers who won’t question our fire services. Huntersville taxpayers cannot afford another $3.5 million catastrophe like Station 3 that came about after a prior town board in 2008 neglected to question the circumstances around its site selection. More to come on Station 3 next time.

Eric