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

Is HFD, Inc. Seeking A $171K Slush Fund?

According to the FY 18/19 Budget Plan presented by Chief Dotoli on behalf of Huntersville Fire Department, Inc., they are seeking new funding in the amount of $171,039 to fund an “Incident Commander” position to be on duty 24/7/365. Chief Dotoli stated during his presentation to the town board on April 2 this position would be filled by five (5) existing HFD, Inc. members. The chief attempted to break this $171K figure down at the dais before the town board by claiming it amounts to $17.50/hr x 24 hrs a day x 365 days a year. If you do the math that equals $153,300, leaving a difference of approx. $17,739. The chief’s total amount requested is much closer to $19.50/hr. I’m still waiting for some clarification from someone on this discrepancy.

Paragraph 11 under the Agreement section of the town’s current fire services contract with HFD, Inc. makes very clear that HFD, Inc. is not a department of the town and that the town shall have no control over the operation of the fire department… and shall not approve or disapprove of the membership or in other manner supervise any element of control over fire department. This lack of any control over the operation of HFD, Inc. (except in limited cases involving equipment) includes decisions about salaries and personnel. The chief can make any claims he wants during a budget presentation, but HFD, Inc. is under no obligation to spend the $171K on five “Incident Commanders” if the town agrees to the additional funding. The chief has already made clear this funding will not be going towards new hires, so which existing members of HFD, Inc. does he intend to provide this additional funding to and how much does he intend to give to each of these existing members?

Since we all know government only grows in one direction, if the town board agrees to $171K for FY 18/19, how much more will HFD, Inc. ask for next year? $173K? $175K? Whatever the amount in the future it will become a permanent, recurring line item in HFD, Inc.’s budget and taxpayers will be obligated to fund it regardless of whether it is spent on “Incident Commanders.”

In most negotiations it’s standard to ask for more than you think you can get. You can’t really fault the chief for seeking an additional $171K of taxpayer money this year, but that doesn’t mean the town board has to agree to give HFD, Inc. any or all of what they ask for. It even says so in paragraph 5 under the Agreement section of the contract. “By this Agreement, Town is not obligating itself or future Boards as to the level of support given to fire department…” We’ll find out the town’s position on HFD, Inc.’s budget in a few weeks when the manager’s recommended budget is unveiled.

And just a reminder, according to HFD, Inc.’s most recently available audit they reported sitting on $1,221,987 in cash at the end of FY 2017. How does a non-profit amass over $1.2 million in cash? One budget cycle at a time.

Eric

HFD, Inc. Attorney Issues No-Contact Letter in Response to Records Request

I sent three (3) records requests to the town of Huntersville and to Huntersville Fire Department, Inc. (“HFD, Inc.”) between March 15 and March 21, 2018. All three requests have been denied by HFD, Inc. Chief Jim Dotoli. On March 23, I emailed Chief Dotoli seeking clarification of HFD Inc.’s position regarding my requests and offered to speak with him whenever convenient about public records law in NC and its applicability to HFD, Inc. if the department intended to deny my requests and he never responded. This morning I emailed our town attorney, Bob Blythe, and cc’ed our town board and Chief Dotoli and requested Mr. Blythe provide an opinion on whether HFD, Inc. is subject to a request for public records pursuant to NCGS Chapter 132. Approximately two hours later I received the letter below from Jesse Jones, Esq. of the McIntosh Law Firm in Davidson.

2018-03-28 HFD Atty Ltr

This is how HFD, Inc. responds to a citizen requesting records. Instead of complying with the law they hide behind their lawyer. The biggest problem is now I don’t know whether I have to call Mr. Jones, Esq. first if my house catches fire. I wonder how much HFD, Inc. is going to request from the taxpayers for legal fees in their upcoming FY 18/19 budget?

So what did I ask for that caused HFD, Inc. to retain legal representation? On March 15, I requested a copy of any invoice(s) or record of payment(s) from Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. to JMC Design & Fabrication. On March 20, I requested a copy of any invoice(s) or record of payment(s) from Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. related to any and all gym/fitness/exercise equipment purchased for use at Fire Station 4 including, but not limited to, treadmills, row machines, elliptical machines, weight racks, dumbbells, flat and adjustable benches, and TAG Fitness functional training systems. And on March 21, I requested a copy of any invoice(s) or record of payment(s) from Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. related to travel expenses, including flight, hotel, meals or other related expenses, for HFD, Inc. member travel to Smeal Fire Apparatus in Snyder, NE for the purposes of inspecting a new fire engine.

HFD, Inc.’s reluctance to respond to these three straightforward requests makes you wonder what they are trying to hide?

Maybe HFD, Inc.’s social media team should stop using the #OneTownOneTeam hashtag they’re so fond of and start using the more fitting #OneTownOneTeamUnlessYouAskTooManyQuestions hashtag instead?

Eric