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

Commissioners Walsh And Boone Have Some Questions To Answer

People have been asking me ever since Monday’s town board workshop meeting whether we elected Commissioners Dan Boone and Nick Walsh to represent the interests of the entire town or just the Huntersville Police Department? Many of these same people are also asking why Commissioners Walsh and Boone seem to be so intent on advocating for raises for HPD instead of raises for all town employees? I have plenty of questions of my own for Commissioners Boone and Walsh, but this article isn’t about me and my questions, this is an effort to get questions answered for the many, many people who have been reaching out to me with questions this week, questions that I have been unable to answer.

The main question people have been asking is what is the problem Commissioners Walsh and Boone think they are trying to solve? Commissioner Boone began the discussion of police pay raises Monday by describing an email he sent to all other commissioners with 14 questions so they could all have the same information to “solve this” – but he never defined what problem needed solving. People have asked me if the problem is just about HPD losing officers to CMPD then why is it so difficult for Commissioners Boone and Walsh to answer simple questions about HPD staffing? For example, people have asked me how many officers did HPD lose to CMPD last year, and are we losing more officers to CMPD (or other police departments) than is typical in a year, and if the board does agree to this “step plan” and pay increase that brings us closer to the starting pay of CMPD will this solve HPD’s staffing issue?

A resident of Huntersville even attempted to ask Commissioner Walsh about this issue directly at his town commissioner facebook page after Commissioner Walsh stated on April 10, “We need to stand up for the police department and support a new pay plan. This will slow down the exodus of officers we are currently experiencing.” This resident asked what seemed to be a very simple question, “How many HPD officers are currently exodusing the department?” It’s been three days and still no answer from Commissioner Walsh! People have been asking me why Commissioner Walsh won’t respond to such a simple question given how much he campaigned on communication between the town and residents and that making efforts to increase the quality of communications to the residents and businesses of Huntersville to get citizen input prior to making decisions that affect the town was one of his major campaign platforms?

People have asked me what if maybe the problem that needs solving at HPD isn’t actually related to officers leaving because of pay, what if the problem is more complicated and related to problems within the department, problems, for example, that have failed to address why HPD could have officers earning more than sergeants. Some people have even asked me how many HPD members are even in favor of moving to a step plan style pay schedule as opposed to pay bands or other pay schedules? These same people also ask how many steps are going to be included in the new step plan if the town moves in that direction? And one question I keep hearing is how much will pay raises for HPD cost the town in the long-term since higher pay equals higher retirement benefits. So many good questions by the people, so few answers.

People have asked me about the company line being pushed by both Commissioners Boone and Walsh that every HPD officer the town loses costs the town $100K. How are they calculating this figure people are asking? Even town manager Jackie Huffman can’t figure out how they are arriving at $100K and she’s real smart when it comes to numbers. Near the end of Monday’s workshop meeting after yet another reference by Commissioner Boone to the alleged $100K cost of officers leaving, Mrs. Huffman politely attempted to question how Commissioners Boone and Walsh arrived at this figure and said she struggles to see how we get to that $100K. She made it clear she was not in favor of turnover at HPD, but she did not want to be intimidated by a figure she couldn’t back up. People have also asked me if it’s ironic that Commissioners Walsh and Boone are attempting to convince our town manager to give pay raises to HPD to stop CMPD from poaching our officers from Huntersville when Huntersville poached our town manager and finance director from Cornelius?

And it’s not just the people asking questions, even the mayor had a question for Commissioners Walsh and Boone on Monday about their step pay plan, “What if it means a 2-cent tax increase?” To which Commissioner Walsh excitedly replied, “What if it does?” I’ve had a lot of people ask me about that remark from Commissioner Walsh and why he’s so eager to raise our taxes? A few other people have also asked me about Commissioner Walsh’s reply to Commissioner Boone’s email asking about support for the step plan. Commissioner Walsh reportedly replied, “They’ve [HPD] asked for it, give it to them!” These people are worriedly asking me if Commissioners Boone and Walsh are so eager to give HPD what they’re asking for because they each received a $1,000 campaign contribution from the Southern States Police Benevolent Association? I’ve tried to assure the people asking me this that our current town board members are above reproach and would never act in response to receiving a $1,000 campaign contribution.

Finally, a handful of people have asked me if it’s true that the town is considering changing the unofficial town hashtag from #OneTownOneTeam to #OneTownOneTeamOnlyOneDeptGetsARaise? I have told these people there is absolutely no truth to this rumor whatsoever.

The people have spoken and it’s clear they want answers from Commissioners Walsh and Boone. Will the people get their answers before this year’s budget is approved?

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

Are Local Police Departments Really Struggling With a Staffing Issue Part 2

Another week, another fake news story from the Herald Citizen. The only remaining weekly newspaper in the area ran an embarrassingly one-side cover story two weeks ago asking how local police departments in Mooresville, Cornelius, Huntersville, and Davidson can compete with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (“CMPD”) when it comes to staffing. And last week the paper essentially ran a press release from the Mecklenburg Chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association (“SSPBA”) about police-to-citizen ratios, but slapped a byline with Lee Sullivan’s name on it and called it a story. Mr. Sullivan was the writer of both recent “stories” in the Herald. Running a press release providing only a single viewpoint used to be frowned upon in the world of journalism, but that was back when real journalists still existed. [Note: I will no longer directly link to the Herald from my site when referencing articles. If you want to give them the clicks, you can visit their site directly.]

Oh, and did I mention the Mecklenburg Chapter of the SSPBA also ran a full-page ad in last week’s paper encouraging people to contact elected officials in Huntersville and support a pay raise for the Huntersville Police Department (“HPD”)? Full-page ads in the Herald aren’t cheap. I wonder if the dues paying members of the Mecklenburg Chapter of the SSPBA who don’t work in Huntersville support the decision to use their dues to support raises just for HPD officers?

They say perception is reality and the perception now is that if the Herald provides favorable coverage of an issue/individual/organization that coverage will be rewarded with advertising revenues. The Herald is no longer in the business of reporting news, it has now moved into the business of shaping opinion by reporting only carefully selected facts in their “stories.” At least the former Citizen made an effort, albeit weak, to separate their news and opinion sections with their “Talkers” column. The Herald needs to address this publicly if they want to maintain any credibility as a news organization. Or, they could decide to embrace their new role as the official propaganda arm of local government and just rename the paper the Herald Comrade.

Notably, the SSPBA reported spending $36,548.48 during the 2017 municipal elections in NC according to their most recent campaign finance report at the State Board of Elections. This includes approx. $8,000 to local candidates in Huntersville and Cornelius. Five out of six of your current Huntersville town board members received $1,000 contributions from the SSPBA: Bales, Boone, Gibbons, Hines, and Walsh; Phillips is the only commissioner not to receive a contribution. Joe Sailers also received $1,000. Will these $1,000 contributions have any effect on the decision by the town board to award raises to HPD officers this year?

Since the most recent Herald story focused on police-to-citizen ratios instead of just comparing starting base pay figures, a few thoughts about this ratio issue.

Mr. Sullivan describes “an officer-to-resident ratio recommended by the FBI” of 2.23 to 2.51 sworn officers per 1,000 residents in his story. Mr. Sullivan does not, however, provide any citation or source for this “recommended” ratio. After researching this supposed FBI staff level recommendation, I can only assume the 2.23 to 2.51 ratio comes from a 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics report summarizing law enforcement employment data. The second page of the report contains a table showing the national estimate of sworn officers per 1,000 U.S. residents from the years 1992-2012 ranging from 2.23 in 1992 to 2.51 in 2008. Interestingly, a footnote to this table states, “Counts provided from the UCR police employee data are based on a convenience sample of agencies that voluntarily reported to the FBI and do not represent a national sample [emphasis added].” Nowhere in this report does it state this range is to be used as a recommendation for staffing levels. The report also states on page 3, “In each year from 1992 through 2012, more than two-thirds of the agencies that reported employment data served jurisdictions with a population of less than 10,000.” Not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison with the current estimated population of Huntersville being over 60,000.

I welcome a response from the Herald or Mr. Sullivan with the source of the reported FBI recommended staffing ratio.

The most recent police employee data I could find at the FBI’s website from their 2016 Crime in the United States report (the police employee data for 2017 hasn’t been released yet) also provided some helpful information. According to the report, the nationwide average of sworn officers was 2.4 per 1,000 residents. This 2.4 figure does fit within the range reported by Mr. Sullivan, however, the “user’s note” included with the report seemed to contradict the notion that this was any type of recommendation. The “user’s note” states in part, “Because of law enforcement’s varied service requirements and functions, as well as the distinct demographic traits and characteristics of each jurisdiction, readers should use caution when drawing comparisons between agencies’ staff levels based on police employment data from the UCR Program. In addition, the data presented here reflect existing staff levels and should not be interpreted as preferred officer strengths recommended by the FBI [emphasis added].”

There are many recognized staffing models for local police departments and the population or per-capita based staffing model has it detractors. For example, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (“IACP”) published an article on this issue a few years ago that explained their position against using police to population ratios as a basis for agency staffing decisions. “Ratios, such as officers-per-thousand population, are totally inappropriate as a basis for staffing decisions. Accordingly, they have no place in the IACP methodology. Defining patrol staffing allocation and deployment requirements is a complex endeavor which requires consideration of an extensive series of factors and a sizable body of reliable, current data.”

You can also read two other reports on this issue here and here from the International City/County Management Association that are critical of solely using population or per-capita based staffing models as a basis for staffing decisions. Even Cornelius Chief Bence Hoyle recognizes that population ratios aren’t the ideal way to make staffing decisions. The Herald reported that Hoyle said he knows about the FBI recommendations and other statistics concerning police staffing, but he believes the type of community, and the type of calls for service [emphasis added] are factors that merit more consideration.

The town shouldn’t incentivize higher crime rates by punishing HPD for their good work in helping to keep crime at historically low levels by reducing staff or cutting pay. But, maybe before deciding whether to award pay raises to HPD officers, the town board needs to determine what problem they’re actually trying to solve with a pay raise? As I discussed in my last article, the argument for raises based on parity with CMPD’s starting salary is based on unfounded assumptions. And as I’ve just outlined above, clearly the argument for raises based on an officer-to-resident ratio is also not convincing. Maybe the Herald will have yet another “story” out this week with a new problem being faced by HPD and other local departments that will require further analysis.

Here’s a novel idea – why don’t we actually ask our officers what they think about these issues and what problems at HPD may need to be addressed instead of simply relying on information in ads and social media posts by an interested party like the SSPBA? Surely the town could come up with an anonymous survey option to address officer concerns about retribution?

Huntersville simply cannot win an arms race with Charlotte when it comes to officer pay. The FY17 operating budget in Charlotte was $634.9 million! The approved FY17/18 operating budget in Huntersville was $35.5 million. Do we really think CMPD and the Charlotte city council will sit idly by while their 157 open positions remain unfilled if HPD is able to raise it’s starting base pay to match CMPD’s?  It’s unfortunate the SSPBA and HPD seem to be taking advantage of the staffing issues Huntersville is currently facing due to the recent resignation of the town manager to push through a significant raise for employees in one department of the town. Again, let’s hope the Huntersville town board takes the time to analyze the complex issue of appropriately staffing the police department before simply throwing more money at the problem in the next budget.

Eric

Are Local Police Departments Really Struggling With a Staffing Issue?

It has been a few weeks since I’ve been motivated to write about much, but budget season in Huntersville is just around the corner so I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about soon enough. Thankfully the local paper is a never-ending source of motivation whenever I’m in a slump. Serious question time – now that the Herald bought the Citizen and we only have one local weekly paper, does that mean the Herald Citizen is now the “only experienced, professional, legitimate news outlet in the Lake Norman region?”

The cover story of the Herald Citizen last week alerted readers to the alleged struggle all four local police departments (Mooresville, Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson) are currently facing over staffing issues. The story featured quotes from the chiefs of all four departments expressing similar concerns over staffing. But don’t worry, according to the author this feature story was totally not a coordinated media blitz by local police departments since he lets us know that these concerns were expressed in the same way in separate conversations without knowing what the others said.

Let’s start by admiring the lengthy but brilliant analogy (the reader knows it’s brilliant because the author even quotes Chief Hoyle agreeing with the analogy) used by the author comparing the alleged hiring struggles of local police departments to a small-market baseball team losing a talented prospect to the loathsome Yankees of New York. In this analogy, the four local police departments are your AAA ball club and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (“CMPD”) is the Yankees, get it? Except maybe the analogy isn’t quite as good as Chief Hoyle says it is because small-market teams expect to lose their best prospects to the big league and even the loathsome Yankees have to compete with other “large-market” teams to retain their best players. In addition, even the loathsome Yankees and their vast resources can’t pay a high enough salary to prevent players from getting injured or retiring. And maybe the four local police departments just can’t offer the same opportunities that CMPD can no matter their starting base salary. What if an officer’s career goal is to be the best murder police in the world (yes, I learned everything I know about police work from watching The Wire)? Fortunately our local departments won’t be able to help that officer achieve that goal, while CMPD offers far too many opportunities for an officer that wants to be good murder police.

Maybe the 140 or so words used on this brilliant analogy could have been better used asking some specific questions about the staffing issues facing the local departments instead of just running a story full of unfounded assumptions.

Here are a few suggested questions for the local police departments that the author can ask in a follow-up piece, and for Huntersville in particular since Chief Spruill states that his department is the most vulnerable.

  • How many officers did you lose last year to CMPD? How many officers did you lose the past 5 years to CMPD for comparison?
  • How many officers, if any, have you lost to CMPD since they announced their lateral hiring push back in November?
  • How many officers did you lose last year to retirement?
  • How many officers did you lose last year to relocation, being hired by departments other than CMPD (including private security or police), injury, leaving policing for another profession, being hired by the Yankees, or any other reason?
  • If each respective town board approves a budget that includes salary increases for officers to match the starting base pay of CMPD, will this solve your staffing issues?
  • How many current officers in your department were lateral hires from other departments? Should your department be concerned about poaching officers from other towns that don’t have the budget/resources to pay their officers the same starting base pay you pay your officers?
  • None of the local departments list more than 3 current openings, while CMPD lists 157. Chief Dunn is quoted as saying that staffing issues in Davidson might be putting officers at risk because the number of officers on the street is below what it needs to be. Does this mean CMPD officers could be at risk as well due to their staffing issues and, if so, do the local departments have any obligation not to hinder attempts by CMPD to remedy their own staffing issues?
  • Is CMPD’s staffing issue resulting in higher crime in neighboring towns like Huntersville? If so, what is the best way to remedy this problem?
  • Is it possible any of the local departments are currently overstaffed and could afford to lose a few officers to CMPD?

Complex issues require serious analysis to reach solutions. Let’s hope each town board takes the time to analyze the complex issue of appropriately staffing their respective police departments before simply throwing more money at the problem in the next budget.

Eric