Crowdsourcing the Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. Contract

I know how much the journalists at our local fake news outlet, the Lake Norman Tax the Citizen, hate it when my stated agenda manifests itself behind the dais at town hall, so I thought I would outsource this latest issue to other Huntersville residents for their input. As I reported here back on July 7, the town’s current fire services agreement with the Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. (HFD) is set to expire in October. The town board agreed during their July 17 meeting to review revisions to the contract at their next meeting on August 7.

The language in paragraph 15 states that if neither party gives notice to the other at least sixty (60) days prior to the final termination date of this Agreement – which would appear to be October 15, 2017, such non-action shall be deemed a mutually agreed upon renewal for another five (5) year period on the same terms… This 60 day deadline is quickly approaching next month – either August 15 or 16 – which means the town board will have to take action on the contract at the upcoming August 7 meeting or else the contract will automatically renew prior to their next scheduled regular meeting on August 21.

I have included a copy of the current fire services agreement below. Please review and offer any feedback or suggestions you may have in the comments. Are there revisions the town could make to ensure a better deal for taxpayers? Is greater transparency needed to ensure accountability of taxpayer dollars? Why would the town ever agree to title all vehicles/equipment in the name of HFD even though taxpayer dollars were used for their purchase? (See paragraph 14.) Is five years the appropriate length for the term of the contract?

Time is of the essence so start offering up your suggested revisions as soon as possible!

Eric

Fire services K

Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. Contract Questions

The following excerpt is from my column in the Sept. 29, 2016 issue of the Herald Weekly.        

Did you know the Huntersville Fire Department 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? The most recent service agreement between Huntersville and the Huntersville Fire Department, Inc. was signed in October 2012 for a period of five years. This contract will be up for renewal next year during an election year. It will be interesting to see whether any current town board members advocate for a competitive bidding process for fire services prior to agreeing to a renewal of the current agreement.

It’s been over nine months since that column ran and neither town staff nor the town board has taken any public action on the Huntersville Fire Dept, Inc. contract renewal. [See contract below.] The stated rationale to rush a vote on the HFFA management contract right before the last election and eight months before it was set to expire was something about the current management company needing time to plan for the future. We are a mere three months away from the current HFD, Inc. contract expiring, so where is the same sense of urgency from town staff or the town board on rushing a vote on the renewal of this contract?

Here’s my question for town staff and the town board – why isn’t this contract for services being put out for bid like the management contract for HFFA or like any other contract for services with the town? If I was a cynic, I’d be tempted to suggest HFD, Inc. is receiving preferential treatment because it’s an election year and no politician wants to be accused of being critical of firemen in an election year.

Huntersville budgeted $3,455,464 for fire services in the recently approved FY 17/18 budget. This is up almost a million dollars over last year. How much of this increase is related to salaries/payments for HFD, Inc. employees?

The current management company at HFFA has agreed to slash their management fee by $25K – back to their 2011 contract fee – solely because the town put the HFFA contract out for bid. Funny how competition works to lower prices. Could the town achieve similar savings on fire services by putting the HFD, Inc. contract out for bid? In light of the massive budget overruns for the massive new fire station #4 being built on McIlwaine, maybe a little more oversight and competition wouldn’t hurt.

An aside: How is it that taxpayers were charged far more than originally budgeted due to cost overruns for Station #4, yet HFD, Inc. recently took to social media to show off their brand new Tahoes?

The language in paragraph 15 states that if neither party gives notice to the other at least sixty (60) days prior to the final termination date of this Agreement – which would appear to be Oct. 15, 2017, such non-action shall be deemed a mutually agreed upon renewal for another five (5) year period on the same terms… This 60 day deadline is quickly approaching next month – either August 15 or 16. There are only two more regular town board meetings scheduled before that date.

If nothing else, the town needs to provide notice prior to the upcoming deadline to re-negotiate the terms of this contract to make fire services more transparent. There is no line-item breakdown for fire services in the town budget. Despite the vast majority of their funding coming from taxpayer dollars, there is also no requirement in the contract that open meeting and public record laws apply to HFD, Inc. Wake County already has an entire section in their fire services contract specifically requiring such transparency from their fire departments.

It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to also re-negotiate the terms of paragraph 8 so the town doesn’t have to pay twice for vehicles/equipment in the event of termination or cancellation of the Agreement. That’s right – the town doesn’t even own the vehicles/equipment it purchases for HFD, Inc. with taxpayer dollars. Paragraph 9 may warrant review as well so HFD, Inc. doesn’t just get to distribute its assets to non-profits upon dissolution.

Today is officially the start of filing for local elections. It will be interesting to see if any candidates for office in Huntersville decide to make the HFD, Inc. contract renewal an issue on the campaign trail.

Eric

Fire services K

The Arrogance of Aneralla

“I hate rude behavior in a man, won’t tolerate it.”

– Captain Woodrow F. Call, Texas Ranger

I may have a slightly higher tolerance for rude behavior in a man than Captain Call, but what I will not tolerate is government attempting to suppress political speech or intimidate citizens. Gerry Vincent, the current interim town manager and former longtime assistant town manager in Huntersville, engaged in both this week when he tried to bar me from entering the meeting chamber in town hall shortly before 10am on Tuesday, June 20.

I was at town hall that day to sit in on a presentation by Health & Sports Works, the current company managing HFFA, as part of the ongoing bid process for future management of HFFA. The presentation was being made in the meeting chamber in town hall during normal business hours and Commissioners Boone, Gibbons, and Phillips and town staff Vincent, finance director Jackie Huffman, and Parks and Rec director Michael Jaycocks were present. Upon entering town hall, I stopped in the restroom and when I came out Mr. Vincent was standing in front of the closed doors of the meeting chamber. He had been informed of my plans to attend the day before.

We exchanged pleasantries and he then informed me that he couldn’t let me in the meeting chamber. I immediately opened my notebook and took out my pen and asked for the specific basis on which I was being denied entry to a public meeting in town hall and Mr. Vincent initially claimed it was a closed meeting, not an open or public meeting, since there was no quorum because only three commissioners were there. [Of course, Mr. Vincent is fully aware that the entire point of limiting these bid review committees to three commissioners was to avoid quorum and open meeting laws to begin with.] Knowing this explanation was garbage, I reminded him this was a public building and not having a quorum doesn’t mean a meeting is closed. He then tried the non sequitur that all types of staff meetings are held in town hall that aren’t open to the public, to which I pointed out this wasn’t a staff meeting. Finally, he tried the imaginary legal argument that I couldn’t enter the meeting chamber because neither I nor anyone else had attended the first presentation of one of the other companies bidding for the management contract so it wasn’t fair if someone attended HSW’s presentation. I asked him if anyone had requested or attempted to attend the prior vendor meeting and he admitted none had, so I questioned what that had to do with me attempting to attend this meeting and he again conceded defeat. After conceding defeat, he finally acknowledged he couldn’t keep me from attending this meeting, but made sure to inform me I could not ask any questions (I had no intention of asking questions, just taking copious notes.).

The really sad part about this incident is that Mr. Vincent put on his big boy pants Tuesday morning fully intending to stop a citizen from attending a public meeting in town hall without any legal basis and he still couldn’t come up with anything better than the excuses above. And some members of town board are seriously considering elevating him to the full-time town manager position. To any board members who vote to make Mr. Vincent the full-time town manager you’re now on notice – vote for him and you’re voting to condone government intimidation.

Later that same day I saw Mayor John Aneralla’s announcement of his intention to run for re-election. As one of the “accomplishments” of the town board under his leadership, he cited “bringing a new level of transparency and accountability to town government.” I decided to take my concerns about Mr. Vincent’s blatant abuse of power, along with concerns that the town is violating open meetings laws related to closed sessions (more to come on this, records request is pending), directly to Mr. Aneralla instead of just firing off a blog post since both issues are related to transparency in town government. I called him around 3:30pm and the call only lasted approx. four minutes. His response can only be described as arrogant (well maybe also as dismissive, condescending, and/or contemptuous…), but an arrogance above and beyond even that special kind of arrogance unique to politicians.

I first voiced my concerns to the mayor about the town’s potential violations of NCGS 143-318.11(c) whenever they enter into closed session. Under his leadership, the town board has entered into closed sessions ten times over the past 12 months. In only one of those closed sessions, on March 20, 2017, is it possible to verify that the closed session was called pursuant to the statute. Mr. Aneralla asked me why I thought I had the right to closed session minutes dealing with personnel matters – clearly not grasping the procedural issue I was raising about closed sessions – and told me to just trust him that the proper records are being kept. I think Ronald Reagan would agree that “Trust me, I’m the mayor, records are being kept” ranks right up there with Reagan’s other nine most terrifying words in the English language. I guess it’s possible I simply misunderstood the mayor and he was actually just testing out his new campaign slogan, “Stop asking so many questions and just take my word for it.”

I then proceeded to describe the incident with Mr. Vincent and he curtly responded by asking why I thought I was entitled to sit in on a vendor meeting? At that point, I apologized for bothering him with such trivial issues and told him I would not do so again in the future since it was clear we were going to have to agree to disagree about transparency in Huntersville.

Maybe he saw one too many “May It Please the Crown” memes on social media and started to take them literally.

I could almost understand his response if I had called to offer him advice on, say, asset management. But, I called to discuss one of the few areas I know a little something about and one of the areas he is basing his re-election on, transparency and open meetings laws. Exactly how Mr. Aneralla has brought a new level of transparency to town government has yet to be explained, especially considering live streaming the meetings wasn’t even his idea; although he did apparently come up with those riveting board meeting recap videos on social media all on his own.

It’s hard to understand exactly what a two-time political loser who was finally able to get elected facing an unpopular incumbent and while riding the coattails of the anti-toll candidates has to be arrogant about. For those who don’t recall, Mr. Aneralla lost the district 40 state senate race in 2010 and then lost in the primary of the 2012 district 41 state senate race to Jeff Tarte in a 5-way race. It’s interesting that despite living in Huntersville for the last 20 years according to his re-election announcement, it took him around 18 years to show any interest in Huntersville politics. It’s almost as if he settled for running for mayor in Huntersville after failing twice to get elected to the state senate. And let’s be honest, if Jim Puckett had run for mayor again in 2015 he would have won by a far larger margin than Mr. Aneralla. (Puckett lost to Jill Swain by a mere 32 votes in the 2013 mayoral contest.)

Mr. Aneralla’s response to the Vincent incident is even more absurd when you consider the mayor is the one who formed an ad hoc oversight committee for HFFA (which only came to light when it was reported in the Herald Weekly after remarks the mayor made at a Huntersville 101 alumni meeting), but then gets mad when a citizen actually attempts to engage in oversight of HFFA. The mayor was just as curt in June 2016 when I asked questions about this new ad hoc committee – but, to his credit, Commissioner Boone, one of the committee members, had no problem in providing me his notes and the agendas from the HFFA oversight committee meetings upon request. Might I suggest that if more citizens in Huntersville had attended “vendor meetings” about HFFA in the past, it might not have taken so long to put the management contract out for bid in the first place?

If Mr. Aneralla’s cavalier attitude towards government intimidation isn’t enough of a reason to not support his re-election effort, let’s just look at his record on fiscal responsibility. He has failed to reduce the tax burden on Huntersville taxpayers for two consecutive budgets. Last year, he was the tie-breaking vote against a budget that would have lowered the tax rate by 5/8 of a cent. When the mayor voted against lower taxes last year he said we just need another year to work towards the goal of lower taxes and that it would be his goal to cut the tax rate over the course of the next year. Well it’s next year and the budget this year did not reduce the tax rate yet again.

What difference does it make if you can point to a long list of spending cuts if none of it resulted in a lower tax burden? A large percentage of the spending cuts for mileage/travel/dues that Mr. Aneralla is touting were no-brainers related to the jetsetting of the prior mayor for trips to San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Indianapolis. But, again, why did these cuts not result in a lower tax burden? One of the few good ideas he did come up with, pushing to redirect CATS spending to transportation infrastructure in Huntersville and away from more studies, is hard to see as anything more than political pandering when he has yet to display the same vigor when it comes to our town budget.

This isn’t to say everything the mayor has done in the past year and a half has been bad, but open meetings and government transparency are particularly important to me so it’s tough to overcome his statements and inaction on these issues.

If people in town can get worked up over the color some members of town staff want to paint an old caboose, maybe a few people can also find the energy to get worked up over attempts to suppress political speech and intimidate citizens from participating in local government. If enough people demand a change in the attitude at town hall, maybe it would even convince a true conservative to run for mayor in Huntersville – I mean the filing fee is only $10. Anyone know someone who fits this description in Huntersville? If so, I bet we could find a way to raise the funds to cover that filing fee…

Eric

Rental Property Shenanigans at 510 Dallas St.

UPDATE: An interesting development, apparently Mr. Ryder was arrested on or about June 8, 2017 for six counts of larceny by employee (a felony) according to the Mecklenburg Co. Sheriff’s website. He has a June 29, 2017 court date for these charges.


The good news for a blog primarily focused on local government in Huntersville, town hall never stops providing me material to write about. The bad news for a blog primarily focused on local government in Huntersville that currently nets this writer $0 per word, town hall never stops providing me material to write about.

I referenced receiving some records related to rental property owned by the town in a post a few weeks ago about the Huntersville Legal Dept. According to the town’s response to my request, the town is currently earning rental income on eight (8) residential parcels (the town collects rent on non-residential properties as well). Rents paid range from $400-$650 per month. Seven of the eight residential parcels are situated along the Hwy 115 corridor and are related to the planned Main Street upgrades. But one parcel, 510 Dallas St., stood out since it was off of Hwy 21 and clearly not related to the Main Street project.

The purchase of 510 Dallas St. was approved by the prior town board 5-1 (Commissioner Phillips opposed) at their Sept. 21, 2015 meeting and the purchase contract was executed by the town in Nov. 2015 for $330,000 as part of the planning for the US 21/Gilead Rd. project. The existing structures at the parcel are set to be demolished at some unknown point in the future to make way for a redesigned interchange with US 21. You can review the project plans here. The US 21/Gilead Rd. project has now been turned over to NCDOT and is tentatively planned to start concurrently with the I-77/Gilead Rd. interchange project. There is no firm start date for construction of either project at this time since NCDOT is still engaged in utility relocation and obtaining right of ways – including still needing to negotiate the acquisition of property directly across the street from 510 Dallas St.

Some issues don’t require much in the way of explanation and this is one of them. I’ll allow the reader to draw their own conclusions based on the following information.

  • 510 Dallas St. is approx. 3,472 sq. ft. with a large detached garage on almost a full acre of land
  • The current rental contract for 510 Dallas St. was signed and approved by former town manager Greg Ferguson sometime in Dec. 2016; this rental contract did not require town board approval
  • The current term of the rental agreement is Dec. 1, 2016 through Nov. 30, 2017
  • The US 21/Gilead Rd. project will not begin construction by Nov. 30, 2017
  • The current tenant is listed on the rental agreement as C. Lane Ryder, Jr.
  • The current rental amount per the agreement is $600/month
  • According to Zillow, the current “Rent Zestimate” for this property is $2,198/month
  • The town did not publicly advertise the property for rent prior to renting it to Mr. Ryder
  • As of yesterday, June 15, Mr. Ryder has failed to pay rent to the town for the months of Dec. 2016 and Feb. 2017
  • Failure to pay rental payments when due constitutes default under the terms of the rental agreement
  • Mr. Ryder is currently in a relationship with a member of town staff

Just another example of the mismanagement of taxpayer dollars that lead to the departure of the former town manager and a new town board being elected in November 2015.

Eric

Huntersville Board agenda – June 5, 2017

UPDATE: Not surprisingly the budget passed 5-1 with little discussion and with Commissioner Phillips being the lone vote in opposition. And as I wrote below, Huntersville appears to have taken a page out of the Nancy Pelosi school of governing since they voted on a budget on June 5 that had not been presented to the public beforehand.


There is a town board meeting tonight at 6:30pm – no pre-meeting is scheduled. 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 – especially for tonight’s overly packed 297 page agenda – 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.

I’m not even going to try to address any of the other issues on tonight’s agenda because the most important item is adoption of the budget (and because I haven’t had time to sufficiently review the 297 page agenda packet that wasn’t even made available to the public until sometime mid-day last Thursday). The budget doesn’t have to be voted on until the end of June – why not just defer a budget vote until the June 19 meeting given how many other items are already up for discussion tonight so that the budget can receive the full attention of the board?

A few other random thoughts on the proposed FY 17/18 budget.

First, why is there no revised budget in the agenda packet? The town board and staff held a budget work session two weeks ago on May 22 and discussed changes to the interim town manager’s proposed budget. Does staff plan to just hand a hard copy of any revisions to the proposed budget to the board at the dais immediately before the meeting starts tonight? If so, why not make the same copy available online to the public prior to tonight’s meeting? I guess the board has to pass the budget before the public is allowed to know what’s in it…

Local government continues to grow unabated despite the election of a new, “fiscally conservative” town board in 2015. Total budget expenditures (including HFFA and Electricities funds) of $47.3 million in FY 12/13, $48.8 million in FY 13/14, $53 million in FY 14/15, $55.7 million in FY 15/16, $57.9 million in FY 16/17, and now just over $61 million recommended this year. If the board does vote on the budget tonight, I look forward to the mayor explaining to Huntersville taxpayers they have to wait just one more year for that reduction in the tax rate he pledged to work on this year…

$17.9 million estimated in last year’s budget for property tax revenues. The town has collected $18,245,815 YTD according to the proposed budget. What is the surplus revenue being used for?

Gotta love paying a $20 vehicle tax to the town every year to help do your part to generate another $1.6 million or so in revenue because paying taxes when you bought your vehicle and having to pay the DMV and the county ever year based on an inflated value of your vehicle isn’t bad enough.

Huntersville’s portion of county ABC revenues remains a paltry $95K. Davidson doesn’t even have an ABC store and yet they receive the same portion of ABC proceeds. What are the state legislators who represent the town doing to bring about a more equitable distribution of ABC revenues in Mecklenburg County?

Every single town department’s budget is up over last year’s adopted budget figures except Governing Body (costs associated with the mayor and town board) which is only down a mere $6,500.

Did you know your tax dollars are used to subsidize memberships for elected officials and town staff to HFFA? See that line item for “Other Contri(Fitness)” in every department’s budget except Legal, that is where the town budgets for a supplement for HFFA memberships. According to the town’s finance director, the town supplements employees and elected officials at the same rate, which is $312 per year. She explained it is considered a supplement because the employee/elected official is also required to contribute $120 per year for their individual membership. Elected officials currently taking advantage of a subsidized membership to HFFA are: Mayor Aneralla and Commissioners Bales, Boone, Guignard and Kidwell.   

Even with all that help from taxpayers, HFFA joining fees AND membership fees are down again this year and it’s highly unlikely the facility will make up the gap in projected figures in the next three months going into summer. But hey, let’s continue to subsidize exercise in Huntersville because economic development, right?

Over $3.4 million budgeted for the Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. and yet they don’t have to itemize their budget like every other department. That doesn’t seem very transparent. It’s interesting that the proposed budget only uses the term “volunteer” but not “paid” or “salaried” when referring to the Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. since it is made up of both volunteer and paid firefighters.

HPD is asking for approx. $1 million more than their adopted budget last year, although the interim town manager is only recommending a mere half a million budget increase. And yet, as of March 13, 2017, HPD is sitting on $347,807.19 in equitable sharing funds received from both the DOJ and Treasury Department. When asked about these funds at the May 22 budget work session Chief Spruill said (paraphrasing) they were saving these funds for a big ticket item. HPD already purchased an armored vehicle without using these equitable sharing funds, what other big ticket item is HPD saving up for? Why are these funds not being used to offset some of the police budget this year? Can these funds be used to help stop the seemingly unending string of vehicle break-ins in Huntersville? Maybe the board’s public safety liaison, Commissioner Boone, can help answer these questions.

And in case you missed it, my thoughts on the Legal Dept. budget are here.

I’m already close to a thousand words so Parks and Rec gets off easy this time.

Eric

FY 17/18 Huntersville Budget review: Legal Department

The FY 17/18 budget will be voted on Monday night by the town board. I’ve been working on an article detailing a line-by-line budget review for each department, but who has time for that? Definitely not your town board members since it appears they’ll be voting to approve the proposed FY 17/18 budget as presented by the interim town manager with very few, if any, substantive changes. Voters who thought they were electing a “fiscally conservative” town board in 2015 that was going to shrink the size of local government should be rightfully disappointed if the proposed budget gets approved. There’s still a chance the mayor surprises everyone and presents an alternative budget that lowers taxes pursuant to his pledge during last year’s budget vote that it would be his goal this year to cut the tax rate – but I wouldn’t hold your breath. [See pg. 12 of the minutes here to read the mayor’s words yourself.]

Even though it’s very unlikely to change the mind of any elected official prior to Monday’s vote on the budget, I decided to at least share some thoughts on the Legal Department budget after reading the top news story in the print edition of this week’s Lake Norman Tax the Citizen (along with some select quotes in the Horse’s Mouth section) about the future of the Huntersville legal dept. You can review the proposed Legal Dept. budget beginning on pg. 33/140 here. I know, I know, you’re probably saying give it a rest with the Citizen already, but they make it so hard when their reporting is just so bad.

First, the town attorney, Bob Blythe, did not become a “full-fledged” town employee in 2010; he became a part-time member of staff on a salaried basis as is clearly stated in the contract below. I would argue use of the term “full-fledged” is misleading given that 99% of readers would reasonably assume that means Mr. Blythe is a full-time town employee. But, who am I to question the word choice of a reporter at “the only experienced, professional, legitimate news outlet in the Lake Norman region.”

Blythe 2010 K

The Citizen accurately reported $241,536 as the total amount recommended by the interim town manager for Legal in the FY 17/18 proposed budget, but the reporter neglected to report how much of that was for Mr. Blythe’s salary. The town agreed to pay Mr. Blythe $98,967 for part-time work when his contract was signed in 2010. The town is currently paying Mr. Blythe $110,577.36 for part-time work as of February 2017.

Next, most readers would likely conclude it was Mayor Pro Tem Danny Phillips’ idea to push out Mr. Blythe after reading the Citizen article describing the events of the May 22 budget review session. Funny thing, I sent an email to the town all the way back on May 6 with a question about the proposed Legal Dept. budget when I read the following language on the summary page, “In FY 17/18, the town plans to transition legal services to a contractual agreement.” Interim Town Manager Gerry Vincent replied to me on May 8 and advised that language meant the town would contract out for legal services and that Mr. Blythe would retire. Is it possible a consensus decision had already been reached long before the discussion on May 22 that Mr. Blythe should retire??

Finally, the Citizen just gets it flat wrong when it reports the Legal budget includes, “more than $33,000 for the department’s share of building and office expenditures at Town Center…” The reporter is referring in part to the $30,325 line item listed for Repair/Maint – Bldg – Main Str. This line item also drew my attention due to it not being included in recent past legal budgets, but instead of just making an assumption I asked the town for more information on this line item when I emailed on May 6 since I couldn’t find a corresponding project description sheet in the budget for this amount. The town finance director responded that, “The $30,325 Repair/Maint – Bldg – Main St is to fund expenses related to the residential rental property; in the prior year, this item was budgeted in the Public Works budget.”

Still not understanding, I sent a follow-up inquiry since I thought Mr. Blythe’s office was located in town center with other staff and not in a residential building. I was further informed by the finance director that Mr. Blythe’s office is in town center and that, “For the upgrades to Main Street (and a couple other locations in Town), we have purchased property that was being used by the prior owners as residential rental property. While design and engineering has continued on our project, the tenants have been allowed to stay, but ultimately, the tenants will leave and the structures will be demolished. This $30,325 is to maintain the property while rented and fund demolition that we expect to occur by FY 2018.”

[I just received a response on June 1 to my records request related to the town’s residential property and rental rates being charged and will provide more on that issue in a future post. Am I the only one who didn’t know the town was such a prolific landlord?]

A little more information regarding the $33,070 allocated in the Legal budget for Contract Services – Legal. This is related to legal services provided to the town by outside legal sources. Yes, that’s right, the town already contracts out a portion of its legal work despite paying a part-time attorney over $100,000 a year. According to last year’s budget, this amount was broken down as follows: $18,070 for the annual retainer for Smith Rodgers, the outside law firm retained by HPD for “real-time tactical legal needs” (you know, tactical needs like figuring out how to deny public records to citizens in real-time…) that I have written about in the past here; $5,000 estimated for the legal services of Jackson Lewis, a law firm in Raleigh the town uses for work comp and employment matters (Jackson Lewis only has an NC office in Raleigh – whatever happened to buying local? Surely the town can find a local LKN law firm or one in Charlotte to handle work comp and employment matters?); and $9,000 for undetermined counsel fees and potential title search expenses. Interestingly, the town amended the budget last year to allow for contract legal services up to $47,235. Why the $15,000 increase in outside legal fees? I wonder how much of this additional $15,000 is related to the town’s attempt to wrongfully deny public records to citizens based on incorrect advice from the town attorney or outside counsel?

Has any board member ever even questioned how many times HPD actually needed “real-time tactical legal needs” last year to justify spending $18,000 of taxpayer monies? But I digress…

Now onto a question neither the Citizen nor any town board member has yet raised. Why does the proposed FY 17/18 Legal Dept. budget contain line items for $1,700 for travel/training and $1,200 for dues/subscriptions when Mr. Blythe’s contract only allows for up to $1,200/year for travel/training and up to $450/year for dues/subscriptions. [See paragraphs D. & E. in the contract posted above.]

The language in Mr. Blythe’s contract regarding a cap on costs related to travel/training & dues/subscriptions seems pretty clear and unambiguous to me and there has been no subsequent revision to his contractual agreement approved by the town board to the best of my knowledge. Apparently, the interim town manager disagrees. He responded to my question about this issue by stating in part, “Each year these expenses have increased and I have found them to be reasonable in the scope of the Agreement.” Either there has been a revision to Mr. Blythe’s contract since Feb. 8, 2017, the last time I requested his current governing contract, or the interim town manager (and past town manager according to a quick review of prior budgets) has on his own decided to fund the Legal Dept. above and beyond the contractually obligated amounts agreed to by Mr. Blythe and the town board in 2010.

Assuming Mr. Blythe pays active attorney rates for both the NC State Bar ($325) and Mecklenburg County Bar ($225), which are both mandatory bars, that’s approx. $550/year – which is $100 more than the town is contractually obligated to pay. (I say approx. $550 because Mr. Blythe responded to my email inquiry today and stated the town only pays 3/5 of his state and local bar dues. He said he pays the remainder out of pocket, but didn’t specify the amount.) The YTD payments through March 31, 2017 total $1,025. What other dues did the town pay using taxpayer dollars last year that would account for the remaining $475? According to the interim town manager, taxpayers also pay for Mr. Blythe to be a member of the following voluntary bars/associations: the International Municipal Lawyers Assoc.; the NC Municipal Attorneys Assoc.; and the Government & Public Sector section of the NC Bar Assoc., the voluntary statewide bar, NOT the mandatory state bar.

But hey, who cares, right? The taxpayers will surely never notice a concentrated benefit of $1,000 or so dispersed throughout a $35.5 million dollar budget goes the thinking of government bureaucrats everywhere. And they’re proven right on a daily basis. Spending other people’s money is so easy.

Final question for the town board on the Legal Dept. budget. Since Mr. Blythe’s contract states that health insurance will not be provided, is the $4,045 allocated for group insurance for the town paralegal only?

Here’s some additional information for any interested town board member still trying to figure out how it wouldn’t be possible to save taxpayers money by contracting legal services to an outside firm. I went back and calculated the average town board meeting time (not counting pre-meeting times since not every board meeting has a pre-meeting) over the period of Feb. 1, 2016 through the end of January 2017 based on times from the Ustream board meeting videos. [Starting in Feb. 2016 allowed for the new board and mayor to become comfortable with procedure meaning meetings were running smoother and that period would also include one mid-year and one annual retreat.] Over that period, there were 22 regular meetings, 1 special meeting in Dec. 2016, the mid-year retreat in Aug. 2016, and the annual retreat in Jan. 2017.

Regular meetings only totaled approx. 2,000 minutes, divided by 22 meetings, equals approx. 90.9 minutes per meeting. If you count the time from all meetings of the board, the total was approx. 2,734 minutes, divided by 60, equals approx. 46 total meeting hours if you round up. Even assuming a very high billable rate of $300/hr, times 46 hours, only equals approx. $13,800. Even a flat fee arrangement of, say, $750 per meeting up to 2 hours (since the average meeting time last year was only approx. 1.5 hours), times 25 meetings, equals $18,750. What about the meetings that last more than 2 hours you ask? There were four meetings during that period lasting over 2 hours, and none that lasted over 3 hours. Let’s assume $300/hr for every hour over the flat fee rate and you’re still looking at just another $1,200. All of these numbers appear to be smaller than the $110,577.36 salary we’re currently paying our part-time town attorney.

And none if this even takes into account the money spent by the town related to other costs of hiring a full-time employee like 401K and retirement contributions, work comp, health insurance, etc.

Slightly less than 2,000 words just on a single department of the town, and one of the smaller departments at that. If you want to know how government wastes your money so easily this is how – attrition. Eventually you just get tired of reading the budget and tired of asking questions about what each line item means and tired of defending proposed cuts to each different special interest and you finally just vote so you can go home.

Eric

Journalism 102: How to Journalism contd.

Here is my obligatory response to the Lake Norman Tax the Citizen “talkers.” If you’re one of the many, many, many local residents who doesn’t actually read the Citizen despite it being delivered free to your house every week and so don’t know what I’m responding to, you can click here. It doesn’t show up in the online version, but the print edition ran a “photo” of yours truly alongside the Talk of the Towns column. Touche, talkers, touche.

Is it just me, or is the whole referring to yourself as “talkers” gimmick so you can avoid signing your name to an opinion piece slightly absurd? Do these “talkers” actually think by hiding behind unsigned editorials readers don’t know that the news staff is contributing to the opinion section of the paper? I know the Citizen can’t afford to hire separate editorial staff like the WSJ or Charlotte Observer, but drop the pretense with the unsigned editorials. One has to wonder if they walk around the newsroom referring to each other as “talkers?”

And is it just me, or is it slightly hypocritical for a paper that disparages social media and users of social media at every opportunity to waste ink responding to something written by “a local blogger?” Maybe my criticism just hit a little too close to the mark. Or, maybe the “only experienced, professional, legitimate news outlet in the Lake Norman region” is upset that some “local blogger” has any influence at all on local politics when we all know “real news” print journalism outlets are the only proper source of influence on local politics. It’s almost as if the Citizen longs for the days when its stated agenda will again manifest itself behind the dais at Huntersville Town Hall like it did before this current board was elected.

I’m not going to delve into the economics of the Rapids agreement not because it’s boring, but because the talkers have already demonstrated their inability to grasp basic economic concepts in the past. See the talkers demonstrate their inability to understand scarcity here and then see the talkers throw a tantrum here when I point out their inability to understand scarcity and their desire for greater state control of the economy. If you want to know how I can consider “an organization paying the town a half-million dollars over 10 years for prioritized field use” to not automatically be a good deal for Huntersville taxpayers, you can start by reading the introduction and first essay of Bastiat’s collection of essays entitled What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.

Instead of merely speculating, I attempted to verify the talkers’ claim that it was the volume of phone calls and e-mails the electeds likely received in the two weeks between votes that changed their minds [about the Rapids renewal agreement] by asking the three commissioners who changed their votes (Boone, Guignard and Phillips) how many emails/calls they actually received. Commissioner Boone said he believes he received a total of five emails – 4 in support of renewal, 1 against renewal, and that support for renewal came mostly from face to face contact with individuals. Commissioner Guignard said he received two emails – both in support of renewal, and had one conversation on the issue. Commissioner Phillips said he received a total of three emails – 2 in support, 1 against. Phillips didn’t remember any phone calls, but did have face to face conversations with individuals who had a vested interest in renewal of the agreement; however, he added none of these face to face conversations were with actual parents of soccer players. So, the three originally dissenting commissioners received approximately ten total emails between them – 8 in support, 2 against, and a handful of in-person conversations (not including two long-winded blog posts opposing the renewal agreement as presented…). Not exactly a flood of opinion either way.

Finally, a suggestion for the talkers from this humble local blogger to help restore their credibility amongst the social media class: some in-depth, investigative reporting. It’s been two weeks now since the talkers column suggesting they needed more time to ask questions about the allegations that the former Huntersville mayor and town manager benefited from a no-cost membership to Northstone Country Club. Might the talkers be putting the final touches on a thorough investigative piece about Northstone for this week’s issue? One other potential topic for a great investigative piece – when is the last year HFFA made a profit and how much money has this facility cost Huntersville taxpayers since opening? A good complimentary story could investigate how much Duke Energy could have contributed to the town in taxes related to the McGuire Nuclear plant but for a prior town board and prior mayor agreeing in or around July 2000 to give up millions in future tax contributions in exchange for expedited payments to help get HFFA built. For reference, Duke paid roughly $9.8 million in taxes to the county in 2016 related to the McGuire plant. Assuming Huntersville would be getting around a third of what the county receives, just think of all the good politicians in town could be doing with those few million in extra taxes every year!

Eric