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

Journalism 101

This week’s edition of the Lake Norman Citizen (or as I like to refer to it, LKN Tax the Citizen) once again demonstrates why it can accurately boast of being “the only experienced, professional, legitimate news outlet in the Lake Norman region.” If you’re an aspiring journalism professional who wants to learn how to get politicians to do what you want while still maintaining the pretense of being an objective journalist, you definitely need to read this week’s Citizen.

See, when you’re supposed to be an objective journalist just reporting the facts you have to work extra hard to maintain that pretense of objectivity so you don’t reveal to your readers that you have just as many biases as they do. For example, at the Citizen they have to work to hide their utter disdain for conservatives and their even greater disdain for any effort (usually) by conservative politicians to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. So when the Huntersville town board initially deferred a vote in April and then later voted 3-2 against the proposed revised agreement with the Carolina Rapids during the May 1, 2017 board meeting, the objective journalists at the Citizen went to work right away to ensure the vote went the way it was supposed to next time.

Lay the groundwork in the Horse’s Mouth section for how great the Rapids organization is and how a deal with them shouldn’t be about the money (remember, it’s Parks and Rec, not Parks and Revenue) after some board members had the audacity to ask questions about the proposed agreement during the April 17 board meeting. Check.

After the May 1 vote against the agreement, run a one-sided article highlighting all of the supposed benefits of extending the Rapids agreement without providing any perspective on how much it costs taxpayers to operate Barry Park every year or any information about how much revenue the Rapids reported on their Form 990 last year. Check.

The week before the May 15 board meeting, write a super clever editorial (and I mean like Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing clever) that people will think is about actually cleaning a house, but in reality is about cleaning house at Huntersville town hall, that attempts to accuse the fiscally conservative majority on the board of not acting fiscally conservative enough and cite the Rapids vote as an example. Check.

Then, when Commissioner Boone, one of the original dissenting board members, does the right thing and places the agreement back on the agenda for the May 15 meeting so the board can finally vote the right way – in the May 17 issue, run cover photo on the print edition with celebratory soccer players and text above the photo stating Town, Rapids back in business; credit Commissioner Boone as being the driving force behind saving soccer in Huntersville and quote him in not one, but two sections of the paper (along with a nice headshot in the print edition!); conveniently leave out that the other “fiscally conservative” board members also voted for the agreement to avoid any favorable print for them in an election year; and write a Leslie Knope-esque editorial as a reminder to other politicians that they better not try to cut any money from parks and rec again. Check.

Continue to rake in advertising dollars from parks and rec affiliated partners and area sports leagues (including the ones who engage in viewpoint discrimination which we just turn a blind eye to even though we’re journalists). Check!

And that’s how you journalism.

But hey, I’m just some guy on the internet so what do I know.

Eric

Huntersville Board agenda – May 15, 2017

There is a town board meeting tonight at 6:30pm – the pre-meeting starts at 5:45pm. 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 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.

It’s not formally on the agenda, but it will be interesting to watch for any discussion related to the recent reports of the former mayor receiving benefits from a local country club and whether any benefits received violated the town’s code of ethics.

Public Hearings:

Conduct a public hearing to receive public comments on the proposed budget for FY 17/18. Hopefully a few residents will show up to remind the mayor and board it’s been a year since they voted down a tax cut proposal. [See the June 6, 2016 minutes here.] 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 proposed budget doesn’t lower taxes. Let’s see if the mayor can still reach his goal before the board votes on the budget next month.

Other Business:

Renew motion approving first amendment to the Carolina Rapids agreement. It’s only been two weeks since this item was voted down at the last board meeting, but it has already been placed back on the agenda at the request of Commissioner Boone. No changes at all have been made to the language of the agreement, but apparently the questions Commissioner Boone had about the agreement have all been answered since the last meeting so he requested it be brought back for a vote. I look forward to Commissioner Boone sharing the answers to the questions he received since last meeting with the taxpayers who will continue to subsidize soccer in Huntersville when this agreement is approved tonight.

Even though Commissioner Boone may have had his questions answered, I still have a few unanswered questions since I last wrote about this issue here.

– Why hasn’t the town board requested clarification of the vague and ambiguous language in the Rapids agreement and the town’s co-sponsorship policy?

– If the Rapids are already paying more than they are obligated to as a co-sponsor to secure a right of first refusal on the fields at Barry Park, why not find out what the true value of their right of first refusal is by re-negotiating the terms of the 2008 contract instead of simply accepting the first offer from the Rapids?

– The Rapids reported revenues of over $1.9 million and paid their executive director $112,889 last fiscal year according to their most recent Form 990. Why exactly does an organization with close to $2 million in revenues need taxpayers to subsidize their field usage?

– Since one of the justifications for subsidizing soccer is because it’s for the children, how many of the approx. 1,700 Huntersville “residents” the Rapids claim as members are over the age of 18?

– How many other “non-profit” organizations using town park facilities pay for a right of first refusal?

– Does a right of first refusal violate the objective of the town’s co-sponsorship policy ensuring all citizens equal opportunity and participation opportunities?

– Can the town guarantee the Rapids aren’t abusing their right of first refusal as outlined in their 2008 contract with the town [see below] which, according to paragraph four, states that other co-sponsors and general public users of the [Barry Park] field space must be accommodated and the [Rapids] shall not exercise its right of first refusal for the purpose of excluding or substantially excluding other co-sponsors or the general public?

Rapids 2008 K

– How much does the town lose every year respectively on each park (or, is there a park that actually makes money?) and what, if anything, is being done by the Parks and Recreation Dept. to minimize these losses?

– Finally, why are recommended salaries for the Parks and Recreation Dept. up $121,885 over last year’s adopted budget when we have a Parks Director who isn’t merely ambivalent about his department generating revenue, but who is actively hostile towards the notion?

Discussion on Old Jail renovation project. There is no clear indication in the summary about what the discussion will focus on; the only thing included in the agenda packet are two invoices totaling $31,725 apparently related to renovating the Old Jail so it will be safe for tours. Surely the discussion isn’t going to be a request for taxpayer funding for these renovations? Let me suggest to anyone interested in learning more about the Old Jail visit this informative page at the CharMeck Historic Landmarks Commission’s website, or just watch any episode of the Andy Griffith show featuring Otis to get a sense of what a day in the life of the Old Huntersville Jail was like.

Eric

Huntersville Board Agenda – May 1, 2017

There is a town board meeting tonight at 6:30pm – the pre-meeting starts at 5:15pm. 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 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.

Pre-meeting:

Presentation of preliminary budget. I heard the interim town manager speak at a recent mayor’s luncheon and he said he was hoping to deliver a budget without a tax increase. With all the savings being touted by the mayor in 2016 thanks to some fiscally responsible decisions, let’s hope Mr. Vincent is actually able to present a budget with a tax decrease.

Public hearings:

Petition #TA 17-02 by University City Church to modify the zoning ordinance to increase the number of times an illuminated/electronic sign can change in a 24-hour period. In case you weren’t aware, article 10.7.1 of the Huntersville zoning ordinance currently only allows messages on signs to change a maximum of one (1) time per 24-hour period. Two local churches have applied for a text amendment that would allow signs to change up to twelve (12) times per 24-hour period. After discussing with the Huntersville Ordinances Advisory Board, it appears the applicants agreed to lower that number to six (6) times per 24-hour period – which the Ordinances Advisory Board agreed with.

This may seem like a minor item, but it’s such a perfect view into the mindset of a planner. The staff recommendation (pg. 13/179 of the agenda packet) would be to oppose the applicant’s request, but staff would allow for two (2) sign changes every 24-hour period. One of the reasons for their recommendation – “Lack of Need – staff does not find it necessary for [sign] messages to change more than two times per 24-hour period.” Ah, well that settles it then, if staff doesn’t find it necessary then clearly staff has considered the needs of every existing and future business or organization that may ever have a sign with changeable copy in Huntersville and decided there could never be a situation where a sign changing more than twice a day could provide a benefit or competitive advantage to that business or organization, or that any such benefit or competitive advantage is clearly outweighed by enforcement or safety concerns.

Planners with such knowledge and foresight of the inner-workings of every existing and future business or organization in Huntersville clearly deserve a raise.

Other Business:

Consider approving First Amendment to the Carolina Rapids agreement. And now to the biggest item on tonight’s agenda in my opinion. This agreement amendment was brought to the town board at their last meeting just two weeks ago on April 17 – you can watch the lengthy discussion beginning at approximately the 39:45 mark. A motion to defer the decision for 3 months was made by Commissioner Boone and seconded by Commissioner Phillips, but a substitute motion was made by Commissioner Kidwell and seconded by Commissioner Bales for a 2 week deferral instead. The substitute motion passed 4-2 with Bales, Kidwell and Gibbons supporting (Commissioner Guignard abstained which is recorded as a vote in favor) and so the item is already back on the agenda.

[An aside. This item is seeking to amend an agreement entered into between the town and Carolina Rapids/North Meck Soccer Club in 2008 and yet the original agreement wasn’t included in the agenda packet. Why not just include the 2008 agreement for interested residents to review so they can have as much information as possible in rendering an opinion on this item? The agenda is generally made available to the public sometime around mid-day on Thursday – town board members receive their agenda packets earlier. Maybe a resident sees the agenda by Thursday or Friday and maybe they send a records request to a board member or town staff for the 2008 agreement and maybe that record is provided before Monday’s meeting. Does this really leave sufficient time to review the information and form an opinion and then discuss an item with a board member before the vote? In the interest of transparency and giving residents as much information as possible in a timely manner, I would suggest the town provide more background documents in future packets.]

Interestingly, the term section of the agreement in the packet for tonight’s meeting has been revised since last meeting. The new term language would appear to provide a 5 year agreement with an option to renew for another 5 years instead of the straight 10 year agreement originally proposed. I would assume this revision is being offered to assuage the concerns of a few board members who raised questions about the length of the proposed 10 year term. But, if you read the revised language below carefully it is a conditional option at best and the Rapids should have no problem meeting the bare minimum condition.

“The Town may terminate this agreement at the end of the first five years, if the Rapids do not have a min. of 600 Huntersville Residents playing within their organization in the spring season and in the fall season. The determination of a Huntersville resident is defined in the Town’s Co-sponsorship Policy. In the event of such termination, the remainder of the Field Usage Fees and the Capital Reserve Fee shall abate and no longer be payable.”

So IF the Rapids don’t have a minimum of 600 Huntersville RESIDENTS playing within their organization in the SPRING AND FALL SEASON at the end of the first five years the town MAY terminate the agreement. I know we already have too many lawyers in politics, but it’s times like these I wish Huntersville had a lawyer on the board.

The co-sponsorship policy [see pg. 5/6 below] defines a resident as: 1) has a Huntersville address, or 2) is a Huntersville taxpayer, and/or 3) lives within the Huntersville ETJ. Wait, so nothing about being 18 or under? I thought the town using taxpayer money to subsidize soccer was all about the children? And what is a Huntersville taxpayer? Are we to assume this refers to property taxes only? What if someone stops to eat at a Huntersville restaurant and pays the prepared food tax or if they stay at a hotel while traveling through town and pay the hotel tax – should these people be considered a Huntersville “resident” as defined in the co-sponsorship policy?

Hville PRC co-sponsorship policy

Where did the 600 figure come from? During the April 17 meeting, the figure 1,700 was tossed around as the approximate number of Carolina Rapids members from Huntersville (out of approx. 4,300 total members). So why such a minimum number of RESIDENTS needed to trigger the additional 5 years under this revised language? Further, which Spring and which Fall season is the town supposed to use to calculate these 600 RESIDENTS? Could this just be 300 RESIDENTS in each season for a combined total of 600, or 600 total RESIDENTS in both seasons for a total of 1,200 RESIDENTS? From what I can tell the Rapids’ Fall season doesn’t even begin until sometime in August. The end of the first 5 years of the agreement would be on or about August 3, 2023 so would the town be expected to estimate the number of RESIDENTS in the Fall 2023 season, or would that be RESIDENTS from the Fall 2022 season and the Spring 2023 season?

Since it now appears obvious neither the staff nor a majority of the current board, including the mayor, have any intent on putting use of Barry Park out for bid despite Commissioner Phillips making this suggestion at the April 17 meeting, might I suggest leasing the entire facility to Carolina Rapids? Commissioner Kidwell has already suggested as much during the April 17 meeting when he attempted to distinguish the Rapids agreement from the HFFA management agreement starting at approx. the 1:05:00 mark. I’m paraphrasing here due to the audio quality, but he said, “You have to compare apples to apples… with HFFA the contract was to pay a company to run a facility for the town, this is the exact opposite. We’re not asking them to come out and run the field for us, Rapids are saying we basically want to lease the property from you for this term…” [I hope Commissioner Kidwell corrects me if I have misrepresented his remarks.]

Let’s accept his argument for now that this situation is distinguishable from HFFA (except that HFFA has cost taxpayers even MORE money than Barry Park…), if all the Rapids are asking is to lease the property from the town, why not just let them assume the lease and all obligations for managing and maintaining Barry Park? The original lease from the County does not prevent the town from subletting the property based on my reading – the county simply requires prior written consent [see paragraph 13 of the lease below]. Let me submit to you the reason the board won’t make this suggestion tonight, and the reason the Rapids would politely decline the offer even if the board did, is because operating expenses for Barry Park currently run the town approx. $146K annually, which is approx. $95K more per year than the Rapids would be paying for the first 5 years of this new term and approx. $90K more per year than what they would be paying the second 5 years of the new term, assuming no increase in field usage rates by the town.

Barry Park lease

If, like Commissioner Kidwell, you were under the impression the soccer being played at Barry Park covered all costs for the town, go ahead and rid yourself of that notion. Skip ahead to the approx. 1:06:20 mark to hear Commissioner Kidwell and Parks Director Michael Jaycocks engage in what may be the greatest exchange in the history of local government. Kidwell to Jaycocks re: Barry Park – we break even, right? Jaycocks – Oh no… Kidwell – not even close? (uncomfortable laughter) Kidwell – Why not?

Why not indeed.

A few other quick observations for anyone still reading at this point.

Thomas Finlay, Executive Director of the Rapids, was right to question why the board was just now raising concerns about this agreement when the Parks and Rec Committee voted on this issue last June and the board has been presented with information about the amended agreement going back to late 2016 and through the first few months of this year. But, the board missed a great opportunity to respond when Mr. Finlay quipped that he thought it was “parks and rec, not parks and revenue” at the approx. 1:11:00 mark. Maybe tonight someone can ask Mr. Finlay what the Rapids’ revenue was last year because I’m sure the Rapids don’t pay their employees with hugs and high fives.

Why not just charge the Rapids $20K more instead of setting up a reserve fund for Barry Park? Why is a reserve fund needed when the park loses money every year? Wouldn’t a reserve fund be more appropriate if the park was MAKING money? And what would this reserve fund even be used for – would it be restricted to infrastructure and maintenance at the park, or could it be used to pay employee salaries or other non-park uses?

Obviously, the Rapids don’t use Barry Park 100% of the time, but why not at least charge the Rapids based on the percentage of time they do actually use Barry Park – in the 80-85% range based on Mr. Jaycocks’ estimate. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to capture some additional revenue by charging them for their actual use of the field so the park doesn’t lose quite as much money every year?

How is it fair to tax all residents in order to subsidize one sport? Roads and police are necessary for all residents, but is soccer? What if your kid is into badminton or chess or martial arts or gymnastics or golf or diving (wait, scratch that, we already subsidize diving here in Huntersville…), would the community be better off subsidizing these instead? One could possibly make the argument that soccer is the last sport in need of subsidizing because it’s already one of most popular sports in the world – wouldn’t it be better to help out one of the less popular sports?

Why did Mayor Aneralla seem so confused around the 44:45 mark about the possibility of putting this contract out for bid and around the 1:03:30 mark when he said he was still trying to figure out what questions needed answering about this issue? The mayor seemed to understand the need to put out the HFFA management contract for bid so it was curious to see his apparent confusion when the same issue was being discussed about “management” of Barry Park.

When questioned by Commissioner Gibbons about the proper subsidy level for recreational fitness at approx. the 52:15 mark, Mr. Jaycocks demonstrated his mastery of the reduction ad absurdum fallacy by telling the board from a profit standpoint they could keep raising prices until they see people stop using the facilities – even though no one on the board was suggesting anything of the sort. While Mr. Jaycocks may not have any incentive to earn a profit because it’s not his money he’s giving away, the taxpayers may feel otherwise.

How is this deal any different than the much-aligned recent attempt by the Bruton Smith family to have taxpayers fund an MLS team in Charlotte? The Smiths wanted taxpayers to build and maintain the facility – which they would have graciously allowed the city/county to use like four times a year – while they got to control the team and the profits. Here, the Rapids enjoy the use of Barry Park during much of the year, which the town has to pay to maintain, all while profiting from member dues. I guess the board would draw the line if the Rapids wanted taxpayers to build them a 20,000 seat stadium at Barry Park…

Finally, why is it so hard for people who campaign as conservatives to actually govern as conservatives? (says the random guy on the internet who has never had to actually earn votes…)

Eric

Why is Huntersville funding North Meck Crime Stoppers?

Before we get to that question, you’re probably wondering what North Mecklenburg Crime Stoppers (“NMCS”) even is. I was wondering the same thing the first time I heard of this group earlier this year on Thursday, January 26 when Huntersville commissioner and current NMCS board member Dan Boone referenced NMCS during the first day of the town board planning retreat. You can read more about this group at their website and in their articles of incorporation attached below. Interestingly, Huntersville isn’t even mentioned in the articles of incorporation they filed in 1990 (the only document found at the Secretary of State’s website). 

NMCS filing

As part of a review of the town’s financial policy during the retreat, the funding of outside organizations was discussed under section B. of the policy. Subsection 5. of section B. stated, “It is the Town’s policy not to fund requests from outside organizations which provide social services or services which are county-wide in scope.” Discussion then followed about whether the town’s new outside organization policy was in line with the language in the town’s financial policy. The current town board unanimously approved a new policy [attached below] regarding funding outside organizations during their May 16, 2016 meeting. It was during this discussion of funding outside organizations at the retreat when Commissioner Boone asked, “What about crimestoppers?” I searched the town’s budget and was unable to find any line item for anything labeled “crimestoppers” so I sent an email to the town asking for more information.

External agency funding

The town’s finance director told me the town issued $1,000 to NMCS in FY ‘17 paid from the police contract services line item in the budget. Ok, so now I at least knew where in the budget to look. Upon review, the “contract services” budget line item in the police budget (see p. 63/162 here) totaled approx. $584,741 in FY 16/17 – so slightly more than the $1,000 that was paid to NMCS. This amount is not broken up into individual line items totaling $584,741, however, which is just an easy way for government to disguise its spending from taxpayers. Knowing the town board had approved a new policy regarding funding outside organizations in May 2016, I was curious when this $1,000 payment was issued since NMCS was not one of the external agencies that made a public request to the town board during the FY 16/17 pre-budget work sessions to the best of my knowledge.

The town’s finance director further advised the FY ‘17 payment was issued on or about August 5, 2016 – well after the board approved their new policy in May 2016 – and the payor was the Town of Huntersville, not the Huntersville Police Dept. The town also made a similar $1,000 payment to NMCS in FY ‘16. I do not know how long Huntersville has been issuing payments to NMCS, but I do know the payment issued at least for FY ‘17 should have been governed by the town’s new external agency funding policy. Did the town comply with its own policy when it issued $1,000 to NMCS in August 2016? Did NMCS submit a written application for this $1,000 grant? What “public purpose” or “vital service” does NMCS provide and is this $1,000 grant serving to primarily benefit the residents of Huntersville? Has the town ever audited NMCS to ensure grant funds were being used for the “public purpose” being provided by NMCS? And are there other external agencies bypassing the town board and receiving funding directly from town departments?

I decided to reach out directly to NMCS in an attempt to answer some of these questions. There is no email or phone number listed on their website, so I sent a request for information using the contact form box on the Contact Us page. I received a response from David Rochester, currently listed at the NMCS website as their Vice Chairman, on Feb. 3 and responded the same day by asking for a list of NMCS tips leading to arrests in 2015, 2016, and 2017 since the last “case file” listed on their website was from 2014. I clarified my request on Feb. 4 for a list of NMCS tips leading to arrests in 2015, 2016, and 2017 where NMCS agreed to pay a reward, along with the total amount of each reward paid.

Two days later on Feb. 6 I received the following response from Mr. Rochester. “Generally, but not always, the North Meck Crime Stoppers Board of Directors votes regarding a few various types of Awards at each Monthly Meeting. Most of these are Confidential and Anonymous, as they involve C.I.’s in gangs or cartels, School Students, and Citizens afraid of revenge. Our website is currently in transition to a new designer, and will be enhanced, containing only Public information. Other Public information about us can be found in various press releases Re: “shreds”, Med-Drops”, “National Night out”, etc. where we volunteer our labor. Thank you for your interest. As a 501(c)3 we are able to accept tax deductible donations if you are inclined to contribute.”

I followed up this non-response with another inquiry asking whether NMCS was willing to provide me the requested information without disclosing the identity of the recipients – a fair request I thought given that NMCS already provided public information about at least one reward recipient under the “Case Files” section of the website. And about their website, the only other “case file” with information about a tip leading to an arrest, the “Jan. 13th incident at Birkdale,” appears to have been on the site since at least November 2013 according to internet archives so it’s impossible to even determine what year this “Jan. 13th” tip refers to. One thing is obvious, NMCS clearly isn’t using any taxpayer money to pay for anyone to regularly update their website.

When NMCS finally gets around to updating their website, might I recommend they also revise the following language at the bottom of their home page. “North Mecklenburg Crime Stoppers is managed by an all-volunteer board and is supported entirely by charitable donations.” [emphasis mine] Taking money from taxpayers could possibly be considered forced charitable donations, but it is the last thing I would ever consider charitable.

On Feb. 7, I received an interesting response from Mr. Rochester who asked, “What Law Enforcement Agency do you work for and why do you want our anonymous information.” For the record, I do not work for any law enforcement agency. I informed Mr. Rochester of this fact on Feb. 7 and then asked when we could speak over the phone. I did not receive a response to this email.

On Feb. 12, I sent another email to Mr. Rochester asking which municipalities besides Huntersville contribute financially to NMCS and how much each contributes respectively. He responded the same day, “Last year we received financing from all the Law enforcement Agencies in our territory: Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville, and Davidson College Police.” He declined to provide me the funding information for the other municipalities so I sent them requests directly. Davidson provided NMCS $1,000 in June 2016, but said they had not budgeted any funds for FY ’17. Cornelius provided NMCS $2,000 in FY ’16, but I was told this was because they didn’t receive an invoice from them for FY ’15, and they would likely contribute another $1,000 in FY ’17. Chief Sigler of the Davidson Campus Police advised that the University had declined to release information about NMCS funding levels in response to my request.

I emailed Mr. Rochester again on Feb. 21 to ask if anyone at NMCS would be interested in answering any questions for a piece I was writing; he responded the same day and said, “I’ll ask them.” I have never heard anything further from Mr. Rochester or anyone at NMCS and I still have no idea how many, if any, NMCS tips lead to arrests in 2015, 2016, and 2017 and whether NMCS agreed to pay a reward, along with the total amount of each reward paid, for said tips.

So, who cares if the town gives a mere $1,000 of taxpayer money every year to a group with crime stoppers in the title, right? I mean if crime is being stopped in North Mecklenburg for just $1,000 a year, that’s only like three cents a year when you spread it over every taxpayer in Huntersville so why waste time writing all these words about such a small amount of money? (Hint: google concentrated benefits/dispersed costs)

For one thing, because it’s just another real world example of one of my favorite quotes – the easiest thing in the world is spending other people’s money. But, more importantly, because no other local media outlet reporting on Huntersville (particularly not any of the experienced, professional, legitimate type news outlets in the Lake Norman region) would ever waste this much ink on a single $1,000 appropriation out of an operating budget of over $30 million. Well this is how you wind up with an operating budget of over $30 million – $1,000 at a time.

I welcome a response from anyone affiliated with, or anyone supportive of, NMCS to justify why Huntersville taxpayers should continue to fund this organization. I also welcome any comments from current or former elected officials in Huntersville explaining why they have allowed money to be taken from Huntersville residents for years to fund NMCS, how NMCS has benefited Huntersville residents, and whether they intend to allow money to continue to be taken from Huntersville taxpayers for the benefit of NMCS. It is an election year after all.

Eric

Huntersville Board agenda – April 17, 2017

There is a town board meeting tonight at 6:30pm – the pre-meeting starts at 5pm. 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 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 items.

Tonight’s agenda is light, but I did want to comment on one item.

Other Business:

– Item B. Consider approving  first amendment to the Carolina Rapids agreement. Carolina Rapids (formerly known as the North Meck Soccer Club) is based out of Cornelius and offers youth and adult soccer leagues to Huntersville and non-Huntersville residents. Carolina Rapids is in the 9th year of a ten year contract with the town for field usage at Barry Park – the current contract ends in August 2018. Barry Park is the large park/soccer fields on the west side of Huntersville beside Barnette Elementary. The proposed amendment to be voted on tonight would extend Carolina Rapids’ use of Barry Park for another ten years until August 2028.

I had three questions upon review of this agenda item: why is the board set to vote on an amendment to a contract sixteen months before it ends; is it really prudent to enter into a long term contract with a single business given the continual growth of youth sports leagues in this area; and has the town requested or received bids for field usage from any other soccer leagues besides Carolina Rapids?

The Parks and Rec committee voted 7-1 to approve the recommendation to amend the existing agreement during its June 15, 2016 meeting. There was no discussion of other bids in the minutes from this meeting. I’d welcome any feedback from any PRC members from that time regarding why they chose to vote to approve this amendment and whether any discussion of other bids took place.

I criticized the prior town board for rushing through the renewal of the management contract for HFFA before an election when that contract didn’t end for approximately another 8 months. Maybe a member of the current board can explain why they shouldn’t be subjected to the same criticism if they vote tonight to approve a renewal/amendment of the Carolina Rapids contract sixteen months before it ends.

This town board recently did the right thing by asking for bids on the management contract of the HFFA. Why wouldn’t the same logic apply when deciding whether to sign a long term agreement for “management” of the soccer fields at Barry Park? Youth sports is big business, to be sure at least one other area soccer league would be interested in submitting a bid for long term usage of the valuable asset managed by Huntersville Parks and Rec.

Eric