HPD Take Home Vehicles – Cost or Benefit?

UPDATE: The town has confirmed there are also four (4) take home vehicles in the Engineering & Public Works Dept. I don’t know whether this means four employees have take home vehicles they use to drive to/from work every day, or if there are four vehicles available for use if needed. But, the town has also confirmed there is no written policy similar to HPD’s take home policy governing the use of take home vehicles by Engineering & Public Works. Why is the town board continuing to allow such a massive liability without any oversight??


When the news broke on July 16 that a Huntersville police officer was involved in an accident (the accident was not his fault) in his unmarked police vehicle while on his way to work, one detail that stood out to me was the location of the accident – at the Rowan and Cabarrus County line. Why was HPD officer Ryan Smith driving to work all the way from Rowan County in an HPD vehicle? I wanted to learn more about HPD’s take home vehicle policy (“Policy”) to find out if Officer Smith was the only officer driving such a long distance to and from work each day so I sent a records request to the town for more information. Based on the information I received, Officer Smith’s situation is clearly not the exception to the rule at HPD.

The current HPD Policy (or “Personally Assigned Cruiser Program”) became effective on August 8, 2016. [See attached below] The current Policy rescinded the prior take home vehicle policy under Chief Phillip Potter that was effective from Nov. 21, 2011 until August 7, 2016. While the prior policy and the current Policy are very similar, Chief Cleveland Spruill made four (4) significant revisions to the Policy that greatly increased the annual mileage for HPD’s vehicle fleet: 1) the new Policy uses an arbitrary “outermost town limits” standard to determine to/from distance from the officer’s primary residence instead of a fixed point like HPD headquarters under the prior policy; 2) the new Policy uses “the actual straight line distance” from the officer’s home to the outermost town limits to determine to/from distance instead of “the actual shortest direct driving route distance as measured on public roadways” as under the prior policy; 3) the new Policy increased the number of categories of officers permitted to take an HPD vehicle up to 20 miles from the outermost town limits to now include SWAT, crash re-constructionists, and animal control; and 4) the new Policy added a provision giving the chief full discretion to grant approval for distances greater than 20 miles from the outermost town limits under unique circumstances after “consultation” with the town manager (but not the town board).

2018-07-17 1.43 DIRECTIVE PAC PROGRAM

The changes made to the Policy under Chief Spruill clearly resulted in additional costs to taxpayers, so why has there never been a public discussion by the town board about whether the additional costs of this new Policy outweigh any benefits? Additional costs such as increased liability for accidents and higher insurance costs, increased costs for fuel, increased wear/tear on the vehicle and higher maintenance costs, and the increased costs related to the frequency of needing new police vehicles once they hit a certain mileage mark (e.g., 100K miles). Don’t just take my word for it, here’s what Davidson’s Chief Penny Dunn had to say about the issue in an email from March 21, 2018 to one of her sergeants about their take home policy, “My understanding is there is a 10 mile limit, but officers are living and driving the vehicles further than 10 miles. My concerns are not just related to the cost for gas, wear/tear on the vehicle, increased mileage on the vehicle, and increased risk when driven further than our stated policy. There is also the impression that officers can live anywhere contrary to being close enough for a reasonable response time for emergencies…”

Thankfully, Officer Smith wasn’t injured in his recent accident, but his vehicle will still need to be repaired or possibly replaced. Have any other accidents taken place in an HPD vehicle during officer travel to/from work since the new Policy went into effect in August 2016 and, if so, how much has this cost the town? What if a major at fault accident involving significant property damage and/or personal injury takes place while an HPD officer is driving his take home vehicle to/from work pursuant to the current Policy – is the town prepared for this responsibility?

Do the costs outweigh the benefits?

Has the Policy actually increased officer visibility resulting in a deterrent effect? Has the Policy actually increased time efficiency of officers or resulted in quicker response times to emergencies? Does HPD make any efforts or have any ability to actually track the mileage on their vehicles related to travel to/from work? Has any audit ever been performed on the HPD vehicle fleet with regards to mileage that is not work-related, vehicle maintenance, or fuel costs since the Policy went into effect? Is there any independent verification by superior officers of the distance submitted by an officer on their Take Home Vehicle Request Form, or is it up to each officer to determine their own distance from their residence to/from the outermost town limits? If each officer makes their own determination of distance to/from the outermost town limits, are there any officers currently taking home vehicles in violation of the distance limits in HPD’s Policy? One google map printout, for example, shows a “straight line” distance of 19.8 miles from a location in Gaston County to an arbitrary point on the west side of Huntersville near Latta Plantation. But, if you barely move the computer mouse to measure distance on google maps to another arbitrary point on the west side of Huntersville near Latta it’s very, very easy to exceed the 20 mile from the outermost town limit threshold.

Per Sections A.(C.)(3) and G. of HPD’s Policy – it seems fair to categorize the assignment of a take home vehicle as more of a perk or fringe benefit rather than a necessity for officers who need take home vehicles or newer fleet vehicles the most for work related purposes and not just commuting to/from work. Would it be more beneficial to assign take home vehicles based upon an officer’s job requirements/duties and not simply as a perk or fringe benefit of promotion? And are there any unreported HPD vehicles being used for travel to/from work that need to have their mileage audited – e.g., vehicles used for undercover purposes or vehicles obtained with asset forfeiture/equitable sharing funds?

Again, do the costs outweigh the benefits?

According to the most current HPD Personally Assigned Cruiser list I received on July 19, 95 officers were listed (it’s unclear if the list includes any non-sworn HPD employees) and 86 of those 95 were assigned a take home vehicle. 27/86 (31.3%) are listed as having a take home vehicle and live within the town limits. 28/86 are listed as having a take home vehicle and living within 20 miles of the outermost town limits, but six (6) of the 28 are listed as “remote park” so they park their police vehicle at a pre-approved location and then drive their personal vehicle the remaining distance to their residence. So, 22/86 (25.5%) drive a take home vehicle to a residence within 20 miles of the outermost town limits. Leaving the largest percentage listed, 31/86 (36%), having a take home vehicle and living within 12 miles of the outermost town limits (the limit for all other non-command officers).

Based on information I received from the town, the officer driving the farthest distance one way to work appears to be Officer T. Seth Hager. A website printout that appears to be dated Dec. 19, 2016 shows a “straight line” distance of 36 miles from Officer Hager’s residence to 9615 Northcross Center Ct. in Huntersville (behind the Lowes in the Target shopping center off Sam Furr which is apparently where Officer Hager reports for duty…). If you calculate the actual driving distance from Officer Hager’s residence to that same address in Huntersville using google maps, the shortest driving distance is 42.6 miles – a difference of approx. 6.6 miles, or 13.2 miles round trip.

In case it’s not obvious, the problem with using a “straight line” to calculate distance traveled for an automobile is that automobiles can’t fly – yet.

Officer Hager’s situation is unique in that he is the only officer who the chief has specifically approved (with concurrence from former town manager Greg Ferguson) for travel at a greater distance than allowed under the Policy, but a number of other officers travel nearly as far to/from work as Officer Hager on a daily basis. The officer involved in the recent accident, Officer Ryan Smith, for example, reports a “straight line” distance of 17.7 miles to the outermost town limits, but if you calculate the actual driving distance from his residence to HPD HQ (since no specific outermost town limit address was used by Officer Smith unlike Officer Hager), the shortest driving distance is 29.3 miles. And the same underestimation of mileage using a “straight line” calculation could be demonstrated for the officers coming from Bessemer City, Kings Mountain, Sherrills Ford, Iron Station, Lincolnton, China Grove, Catawba, or Waxhaw.

The town board most recently approved the expenditure of $177,835 to help pay part of the costs for eleven (11) new police vehicles during the Nov. 20, 2017 town board meeting (this amount had already been approved in the HPD budget for FY17/18). What percentage/portion of these eleven new vehicles were necessary, even in part, due to the additional mileage being placed on old vehicles solely related to travel to/from work pursuant to the current Policy? Someone in the town’s finance department with access to complete details on every take home vehicle could easily come up with an accounting breakdown of the effect of this Policy on the number of new vehicles HPD needs on an annual basis.

Interestingly, every “straight line” map I received in response to my request for information, except for Officer Seth Hager’s (which was dated Dec. 19, 2016), was a google map printout with a Google copyright date of 2018 and one printout even appeared to be dated the same day I submitted my request! I just can’t figure out why all the google map printouts would be dated 2018 when the current policy went into effect all the way back in August 2016??

Compared with other local departments, HPD’s Policy is definitely not an outlier, but HPD’s Policy should still be judged on its own merits. Cornelius allows take home vehicles within 20 miles of town limits, Mooresville within 20 miles of “contiguous” town limits or at the chief’s discretion, Davidson doesn’t yet have a formal written policy on distance – but their department allows take home vehicles up to 10 miles of town limit, Matthews no more than 15 miles from “contiguous” town limits, CMPD allows marked vehicles up to a 45 mile radius in Mecklenburg and counties contiguous with Mecklenburg (I wasn’t able to easily interpret their policy on unmarked vehicles), and the MCSO allows for a 50 mile radius from the government center in Charlotte. From what I could tell reviewing the other policies only HPD’s policy specifies how to calculate distance to/from work – it would be interesting to learn if any department still uses the shortest driving distance standard rather than a straight line.

One final point – the MCSO’s policy appeared to be the only policy with language pertaining to the IRS. MCSO’s policy states, “The County will comply with guidelines from IRS Publication 15B (Employer’s Tax Guide to Fringe Benefits) to determine the value, if any, of the commuting use of a vehicle provided to an employee during the commute certification benefit year…” and goes on to state, “Personal use of an employer-provided vehicle is defined by the IRS as a taxable non-cash fringe benefit. These regulations apply to employees who drive County vehicles to and from home. Employees driving a County vehicle that is not exempt from the take-home rule will be subject to applicable taxes.” Even if most or all of HPD’s take home vehicles are considered a working condition benefit excluded from taxable income, wouldn’t it be smart to include similar language in our Policy in case the town or an HPD employee does have some tax liability for a take home vehicle?

But just because the IRS doesn’t consider a take home vehicle for law enforcement a taxable benefit doesn’t mean it’s not a huge benefit nonetheless. How many other town employees (or anyone reading this) get a take home vehicle so they don’t have to put mileage and wear/tear on their personal vehicle for work travel or worry about having to pay for gas during the work week?

The current HPD Policy has been in effect for almost two years now with no oversight from the town board (no oversight of the town’s emergency services seems to be a theme…). Since it’s clear the town board doesn’t want to make time to discuss how to protect the residents of Huntersville from corrupt officials in the future by enacting a new bid policy for contracts, maybe they can at least make time during their board meeting next week to discuss whether this Policy is a cost or a benefit to Huntersville residents.

And speaking of police vehicle mileage, how many additional miles is the used HPD armored vehicle going to rack up next week when it’s paraded around for National Night Out? Gotta keep the miles on that odometer low so it holds its value!

Eric

Ada Jenkins Reports $942K Revenue Loss On Latest Tax Form

After the Huntersville town board voted 4-2 (Hines, Boone, Bales, Walsh in favor) last month to continue the immoral practice of forced charity, I decided to take a closer look at the beneficiary of this forced charity, the Ada Jenkins Center in Davidson (“Ada Jenkins”). I began by requesting their recent Form 990’s (the form the IRS requires tax-exempt organizations to file on an annual basis) from the executive director of Ada Jenkins, Georgia Krueger, which she provided. And then, unlike the four Huntersville board members who voted to spend $15,000 of other people’s money on Ada Jenkins, I sent some questions to Ms. Krueger so I could learn more about some of the information found in Ada Jenkins’ tax forms. Below are the ten questions I submitted followed by the response (or lack thereof) I received from Ms. Krueger yesterday.

  • How much in total contributions did Ada Jenkins receive from any local, state, or federal government body in your last reported FY from July 2016 through June 2017?
  • How much in total contributions did Ada Jenkins receive from any local, state, or federal government body in your FY from July 2015 through June 2016?
  • How much did each body listed in response to Questions 1 and 2 contribute respectively to Ada Jenkins?
  • Per your most recent 990, under revenue – why did Ada’s contributions/grants decrease from a reported $2,806,115 in the prior year to a reported $1,863,505 in the current year?
  • Per your most recent 990, under expenses – why did Ada’s salaries/other compensation increase approx. $142K over the prior year when revenues were down approx. $942K over the prior year?
  • How many paid staff does Ada Jenkins currently employ – both full-time and part-time respectively?
  • Per your most recent 990, on pg. 31/39 under Fundraising Events – where did you hold the dinner/auction for Event #1 that listed rent/facility costs of $61,278? And under revenue for the same event – please explain line items 1, 2, and 3, i.e., why is gross income less than gross receipts?
  • Please list all sources of food donations to Ada Jenkins other than from individuals.
  • Why did the number of recipients listed as receiving food assistance in FY 14/15 – 4,315, decrease to 1,628 recipients in FY 15/16?
  • Is Ada Jenkins currently accepting new clients for any of its services/programs? If no, please specify which services/programs are not currently accepting new clients. [Ada Jenkins is currently accepting new clients per the response of Ms. Krueger.]

Mr. Rowell, 

As requested, I have sent you each of the 990’s. However, I am choosing not to answer your questions below. Ada Jenkins is an amazing center of hope for many people-the largest number of which are from Huntersville. We work closely with our client-partners, through a system of integrated services that support the entire family in reaching economic security. That is obviously life changing for the better. 

We are taking new clients. 

Georgia Krueger

Executive Director

It’s always interesting when someone in charge of an organization funded with tax dollars tells a taxpayer to, politely, go pound sand when they start asking questions.

Ada Jenkins has benefited from $170K in tax dollars from Huntersville since 2003, including the $15K in the budget the town just approved earlier this month. They have likely received a similar amount from Cornelius and Davidson over the years since Cornelius budgeted $15K in this year’s budget while Davidson budgeted $32,500 ($20K in maintenance funds and $12,500 from the town’s non-profit pot). In addition, Ada Jenkins will receive $25K from Mecklenburg County and another $25K from the state. If my math is right, that’s $112,500 in taxpayer funding that Ada Jenkins will benefit from in FY 18/19 (and that’s assuming they don’t receive any money from the federal government as well). I wonder if any of the elected officials from any of the bodies listed above would get a similar response from Ms. Krueger if they asked the same questions I did?

Ada Jenkins reported salaries/employee benefit expenses of $1,210,132 on their most recent tax form. Ms. Krueger reported an income of $84,019 on the same form, so where is the remainder of this salary money being paid? And why did salaries increase last year while Ada Jenkins reported that their expenses exceeded revenues by $56,033? This doesn’t seem to be a sustainable business model.

Another interesting note from their most recent tax form, Ada Jenkins has been utilizing the services of a professional fundraiser for the past two years. The interesting part – the company is located in Georgia! I thought everyone in Davidson bought local? Apparently the folks at Ada Jenkins need to learn to “Turn Around, Shop In Town!”

You can find copies of Ada Jenkins’ most recent Form 990’s below.

Ada Jenkins Form 990 2016
Ada Jenkins Form 990 2015
Ada Jenkins Form 990 2014

Eric

HPD Chief And Two Other Officers Involved In At Fault Accidents

Buried in the consent agenda (where transparency goes to die) for last Monday night’s town board meeting was item 10.B – Approve budget amendment recognizing insurance revenue in the amount of $28,493.51 and appropriate to the Police Department’s auto insurance account. No, HPD hasn’t gone into the insurance business and that $28K doesn’t represent premiums from selling insurance policies; this money simply represents claims being paid on HPD’s insurance policy with the NC League of Municipalities. I know the finance department might consider this “revenue” because it’s money coming into the town, but the town should at least stop referring to claims being paid out as “revenue” on the agenda lest the town wants to make it seem as if our officers being involved in accidents where they are at fault is some sort of net positive for the town.

The summary page for this agenda item in the full agenda packet stated this $28K involved eight accident claims, three of which the town was at fault. I requested more information from the town and was provided the documents attached below. [I have redacted the names of the other drivers involved.] Chief Spruill was involved in a collision on March 1, 2018, Officer Daniel Johnson, Jr. was involved in a collision on April 16, 2018, and Officer Bergin was involved in a single car accident during an ice storm on January 17, 2018.

How do these accidents affect the town’s insurance rates? Were any citations issued as a result of these accidents? How many at fault accidents have HPD officers been involved in this year and how does HPD’s at fault accident rate compare with other departments statewide? What, if any, remedial or disciplinary measures are taken by HPD when an officer is involved in an at fault accident? Just a few of the questions that could have been asked from the dais Monday night if this item wasn’t buried in consent.

2018-06-20 HPD accdt reports

Eric

Forced Charity – Ada Jenkins Edition

– For the Christians among us, we should consider that when God gave Moses the commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” he probably didn’t mean thou shalt not steal unless you can get a majority vote [on the Huntersville town board]. – Dr. Walter Williams

The town board held a pre-meeting discussion on various budget items Monday night, including whether to increase funding for the Ada Jenkins Center in Davidson. The request for additional funding was placed before the board at the behest of Commissioner Brian Hines. The town manager’s budget initially recommended $10K be given to Ada Jenkins (consistent with the amount over the past two years), but Commissioner Hines asked that the full request of $20K by Ada Jenkins be funded. Commissioner Boone later made a recommendation that only $15K be given to Ada Jenkins and this was supported by Commissioners Boone, Bales, Hines, and Walsh – with Commissioners Gibbons and Phillips opposed. Ada Jenkins has provided no specific purpose for which any funding from Huntersville will be used – only that they need the money so they can “continue to provide quality, cost-efficient services to Huntersville residents in need.” Ada Jenkins has paid staff so what guarantee do Huntersville residents have that their tax dollars will even go to “services” and not salaries?

So, why focus on $15,000 out of an operating budget of over $39 million when the money is only going to a nonprofit? Because, (as I’ve said before) every penny spent by the town board is money that could have been put to a more productive use if left in the hands of private citizens. Further, money taken by force and used by government on non-essential functions like charitable giving means less money is available for essential town functions like police, sanitation, fire, or roads and sidewalks.

The comments from the four board members supporting this increase were arguably some of the most disconcerting comments I’ve heard from the dais in a few years, particularly the comments of Commissioner Hines. Between his statements made in support of increased funding for Ada Jenkins and his vote to start a public arts committee, Hines has given up any pretense of being a conservative, much less a fiscally conservative advocate for stewarding taxpayer dollars as advertised on his campaign literature. I understand that not everyone reading this considers themselves a conservative, or even a fiscal conservative, but if you do consider yourself a conservative then be sure to keep this discussion in mind during the next campaign when you hear Commissioner Bales, Boone, or Hines describe themselves as anything even close to conservative (you won’t have to worry about Commissioner Walsh ever describing himself as conservative).

You can listen to the roughly 13-minute discussion beginning at the 20:10 mark here.

After Commissioner Hines introduces the request, Commissioner Bales begins by justifying her support for the increased funding because it’s her understanding that Ada Jenkins provides services that the town could provide so this funding would comply with the new charitable giving policy adopted by the town board in 2016. The only specific example she cites is workforce development. Commissioner Hines then rattles off a list of the services they provide such as community health services, a dental clinic, educational services, and human services (whatever that may be). Later in the discussion both Commissioners Bales and Walsh again repeat this justification about Ada Jenkins providing services that the town would have to provide otherwise, and Commissioner Walsh even makes a misguided attempt to compare funding of Ada Jenkins to funding the non-profit entity that provides fire/EMS services to the town.

Here’s a question for Commissioners Bales, Hines, and Walsh – which specific services provided by Ada Jenkins do you support the town providing directly? [Commissioner Gibbons posed a similar question to the supporting board members, what services does Ada Jenkins provide that the county does not?] Should the town start a dental clinic? Should the town begin paying rent and utility bills for residents? Should the town start a free medical clinic? Or, should the town start a workforce development and job placement program?

Commissioner Hines continued his plea by stating the need for Ada Jenkins is greater than ever and cites their mission of helping individuals build lasting solutions for health, education, and financial stability. I don’t recall Commissioner Hines running for office on a platform of using taxpayer dollars to build lasting solutions for health, education, and financial stability. And if he thinks the need for Ada Jenkins is greater than ever, how much of his own money has he contributed to them in the past year or any year? I’ve asked this question of all four board members in favor of taking money from taxpayers and giving it away to the charity of the board’s choosing and only Commissioner Walsh has responded thus far. Of course, Commissioner Walsh didn’t answer the question of whether he’s given Ada Jenkins any of his own money so I think we can all safely assume what the answer to that question is.

Commissioner Hines goes on to state that the town’s contribution (whatever it ends up being) is only a small part of Ada Jenkin’s $1.5 million budget so “it’s more of a symbolic thing” letting them know we’re supporting you, a thank you… “I think it would be a goodwill gesture to them…” It appears that Ada Jenkins is doing just fine fundraising on its own without taking money from Huntersville. But, more importantly, why does Commissioner Hines think it appropriate to use other people’s money for mere “symbolic” or “goodwill” gestures? It’s noble of people to give to charity with their own money, but it’s immoral when politicians forcibly take money from one person to benefit another under the color of law.

Commissioner Boone interjected his comments (at approx. 26:30 mark) and for one shining moment it sounded as if reason might prevail when he started off by stating the board is pretty quick to just throw $20K or $10K around and it’s not our money to be throwing it like that. Kudos, Commissioner Boone! But, alas, just as quickly he reverted back to sitting on the fence and suggested only giving Ada Jenkins an additional $5K instead of $10K.

I guess every other priority of the town must be fully funded if we have extra money to dole out to select charities of the board’s choosing. If that’s the case, I would suggest we’re being overtaxed. These same four individuals in favor of giving your money to charity also happen to be the same four board members (along with the mayor) who unashamedly take advantage of a subsidized membership at HFFA using $312 of your tax dollars every year (Commissioners Gibbons and Phillips have rejected this subsidy).

For the “it’s just $15K, it’s just a few pennies per resident, it’s no big deal” defenders of this expenditure, let me remind you that taking one penny from someone by force is just as immoral as taking $15K from someone. No one is stopping anyone in Huntersville from giving any of their own money to Ada Jenkins or any other charitable endeavor. If Commissioner Hines tried to take 33 cents (or whatever the actual figure comes to) from every Huntersville resident by force for the benefit of Ada Jenkins he would be guilty of a crime. But, because he can use the power of his elected office to take the money through taxes it’s considered legal.

If you sought elected office because you needed an increased sense of self-worth by giving away other people’s money, please just resign now.

Eric

May 14, 2018 Budget Workshop Meeting

The Huntersville town board held a two-hour long budget workshop meeting this past Monday to discuss various items from the town manager’s recommended FY 18/19 budget. You can watch the video here. (fyi – you’ll need headphones with the volume turned up high to hear most of the conversation.) Public comments on the FY 18/19 budget will be heard during the upcoming town board meeting on Monday night. If you really want to make a difference in how your tax dollars are spent, review the recommended budget, watch the budget workshop meeting, and show up Monday night with some informed comments/questions for the town board to consider prior to their final vote on the budget next month. And if you’re unable to make it in person Monday night, email your comments/questions to the town board.

A few highlights from the budget workshop. The town will be paying far more for electricity next year because of an  incorrectly installed meter. How this meter was installed incorrectly or how many other incorrectly installed meters may exist at other town buildings wasn’t discussed. A department head once again has no answers for the board when asked about alternative costs for a proposal just like he had no answers for the board about why he didn’t put a recent maintenance contract out for bid – costs don’t matter when you’re spending someone else’s money. A town board member demonstrates their inability to interpret a budget while trying to score political points. HFFA is finally in the black for the first time in years (maybe ever?). HFD, Inc. Chief Dotoli gets some batting practice in while the board tosses him a few softballs right over the plate. And an hour long discussion about police pay that ends in no clear consensus for any additional pay or step-plan for HPD besides the 4% pay raise being recommended for all town employees.

– Intro remarks by town manager Huffman (always worth listening to her discuss anything budget related)

– 10:10 mark – Parks and Rec discussion

– 19:30 mark – Electricities discussion

– 29:05 mark – HFFA discussion

– 40:00 mark – HFD, Inc. discussion

– 55:00 mark HPD discussion

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

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