Huntersville government continues to grow

This column originally appeared in the May 19, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. Budget season is almost upon us again. There’s plenty of time to familiarize yourself with the town budget in order to ensure your town board members are asking the right questions during budget workshops over the next few months.

Eric


The proposed (now adopted) Huntersville budget for fiscal year 2016-17 is available on the finance page at the town’s website for review. I would encourage Huntersville residents to read over the budget in its entirety so you can learn more about how your local government is funded and how those funds are spent.

I would also encourage residents to contact the mayor and town board members between now and when the budget vote takes place in June so your voice can be heard on what the budget priorities should be over the next fiscal year. We may be in the midst of a presidential race, but what goes on at Huntersville Town Hall arguably has a more direct impact on your life and the life of your neighbors than anything done by our next president.

“No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So government programs, once launched, never disappear.”

This quote from Ronald Reagan is taken from his “A Time for Choosing” speech in 1964. Mr. Reagan obviously wasn’t referring to local government in Huntersville, but his fundamental point about government remains as valid today as it was 52 years ago. Compare total expenditures in the proposed budget (including Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics and Electricities funds) to other recent proposed Huntersville budgets: total expenditures of $47.3 million in FY 2012-13; $48.8 million in 2013-14; $53 million in 2014-15; $55.7 million in 2015-16; and now $57.9 million in this year’s proposed budget.

How much longer will Huntersville be able to sustain this growth in government without another hike in the property or sales tax or increased fees? If this continual growth in the budget is not directly related to expenditures on essential functions of local government, should expenditures continue to increase at this rate or should the town board request the town manager better prioritize spending? The budget will obviously grow with Huntersville’s population, but the board should continue to ensure growth in expenditures is tied to revenues.

Some additional questions on two specific items in the budget.

Why is $14,700 budgeted for digital server space if the town isn’t going to make all public meetings available by video? I supported the current board’s decision to increase transparency by moving to stream all official meetings online, but apparently some meetings of the board are not worthy of being filmed. As of Monday, May 16, video of the May 2 pre-meeting budget presentation was unavailable at the town’s video page on Ustream. The budget work session on May 10, where a quorum was present, was also not live streamed, ostensibly due to difficulty with the audio.

If our tax dollars are going to continue to be used for streaming and server space, I would like to see this board demand any and all public meetings in town hall where a quorum is present be live streamed, unless an exemption is applicable.

The budget summary states that HFFA receives no general-fund appropriations. Why the need for continual reassurances? HFFA is subsidized with taxpayer funding, and without this annual subsidy covering their debt ($305,024 this year on p. 101/106) I believe they would very likely be forced to close, with or without general-fund appropriations.

If you accept the premise that subsidizing HFFA is beneficial to Huntersville because of the economic development revenue generated, it only seems logical to ask why the town doesn’t fund similar facilities for other athletic activities.

For example, how many cycling events could the Huntersville Family Velodrome draw? Or, think of how many non-residents would come to watch fights at the Huntersville Family Mixed Martial Arts Octagon.

But if we don’t spend the money on HFFA what will we spend it on? So goes the refrain from Huntersville elected officials. Only a politician would never think to return money used for non-essential government functions back to the taxpayers.

It takes vigilance to ensure government at all levels isn’t spending your money in objectionable ways. Now is the time to let your elected officials know if you object to anything in the proposed budget.

New town board keeps same old tax rate

This column originally appeared in the June 16, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. It’s now officially an election year in Huntersville – let’s see how many elected representatives turn into fiscal hawks in this new year. Maybe we’ll even have a few brave candidates run on a platform of actually lowering taxes instead of seeking office just to maintain the status quo.

Eric


Huntersville residents won’t vote for mayor and town board again until next year, but the 2017 Huntersville election campaign officially began with the budget vote last Monday night. The town manager’s initial proposed fiscal year 2016-17 budget totaled $57.9 million. [View the ’16-’17 adopted budget here.]

Commissioners Mark Gibbons, Charles Guignard and Danny Phillips supported a budget amendment that would have reduced the overall budget while also lowering the property tax rate by 5/8 of a cent from 30.5 cents per $100 assessed value to 29.875 cents. Commissioners Melinda Bales, Dan Boone and Rob Kidwell, along with the tie-breaking vote from Mayor John Aneralla, voted against the amendment to lower the tax rate, instead supporting a budget that did reduce overall spending but kept the tax rate unchanged at 30.5 cents.

Some may consider a partial-cent reduction in the tax rate insignificant because, anyone who lives in a $300,000 home can afford to pay about $19 more a year in taxes, right? Try taking about $19 from a random stranger on the street by force and you’ll likely find out how significant $19 is.

Politicians rely on the short-term memory of most voters. It will be interesting to see if the voting public remembers this budget vote next year and holds accountable those politicians who made specific campaign promises to lower taxes.

Here are a few other highlights from the first six months of the new board. 

They agreed to sell the Anchor Mill site to a developer, which should finally result in that property being a net positive for the town in terms of productivity and revenue. 

They created a land ordinance committee to review town ordinances in an effort to make the town more business friendly. 

They voted to withdraw from the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, which led Cornelius and Davidson to do the same (although Davidson is joining a new transportation partnership with areas in Iredell County). 

They passed a resolution in favor of allowing alcohol sales at certain town functions. 

And, most importantly, upon being sworn in they immediately moved to increase transparency by live streaming meetings. There is still room for greater transparency, however, by ensuring all meetings where a quorum is present are filmed unless a statutory exemption is applicable.

This board has can point to many accomplishments in its first six months, but could have done more by reducing the tax burden on Huntersville residents.

I asked the two newest commissioners, Gibbons and Boone, three questions so readers could learn more about them. Commissioner Boone was given an opportunity to respond but declined after initially agreeing to participate. I think candidates for local office should get asked more often about their influences and views on the office they’re running for so I took the opportunity to do so below.

What, in your opinion, is the proper role of local government?

Gibbons: I view the proper role of government is to look out for the rights and freedom of its citizenry. That includes defense, in a town setting that is a police force; infrastructure, including roads and public schools; and providing safe water and sewer access. Beyond those things, everything else done by government infringes on the private sector and taxes the citizens to do so, which restricts individual freedom.

What has surprised you since becoming an elected official?

Gibbons: What has been the biggest surprise to me is the lack of awareness by citizens of what is going on in their own town(s) which also means low participation. I am a firm believer that with rights and freedoms come responsibility. I am also surprised that many elected officials take whatever government agencies and the staff put out as final and rarely question it. That has gotten us in a big mess here in North Mecklenburg.

Who are your intellectual influences?

Gibbons: My biggest intellectual influences include, but are not limited to; from modern politicians, I have been impressed with Tip O’Neill and Newt Gingrich. Both men were able to get things done with an opposing party president in office. I also enjoy reading Charles Krauthammer and Thomas Sowell.

Where is the Huntersville PD BearCat?

This column originally appeared in the June 30, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. The 2003 model BearCat armored vehicle was finally delivered in late July, after publication of this column, and coincidentally just in time for it to be shown off at the National Night Out celebration. The bill of sale is included below. My favorite justification for this purchase given by the town manager and police chief – it has less than 6,000 miles on the odometer! Initial purchase price of the thirteen (13) year old armored vehicle was $31,500 – I haven’t seen any reporting on how much the police department has spent on the vehicle for upgrades and/or repairs since it was delivered. Maybe an inquisitive town board member can find out how much the town has spent on the BearCat since it was delivered at the first board meeting of the year on Jan. 17.

Fortunately, the armored vehicle has yet to be deployed related to any actual criminal activity in Huntersville to the best of my knowledge.

Eric


“Our officers and citizens deserve this kind of protection… Isn’t your life worth $82,000?” That is the response Huntersville Police Chief Cleveland Spruill gave in a June 2015 Herald Weekly interview justifying his request for a BearCat armored vehicle in last year’s budget. If Huntersville officers and citizens indeed deserve and require the protection of an armored vehicle, why is the town still not in possession of the used BearCat paid for last year?

A used BearCat was purchased by the town in October 2015, according to Spruill. [see bill of sale below] It has not yet been delivered, however, due to a purchase agreement allowing the seller to keep its used BearCat until they could acquire a replacement armored vehicle. He explained the BearCat was to have been delivered in May, but unanticipated delays have pushed the delivery date back. Spruill still does not know exactly when the BearCat will be delivered. 

BearCat bill of sale

The town paid approximately $31,000 for the used armored vehicle. Initially, $165,900 was requested for its purchase, but only $82,500 was allocated in the budget. What happened to the approximately $50,000 in savings for the town? Was the balance of the money spent on something other than the BearCat, or will the balance be spent on improvements to the used vehicle when it’s finally delivered? 

And who is the seller currently benefiting from the use of the BearCat paid for by Huntersville taxpayers? That would be the City of Alexandria (Va.) Police Department, which is where Spruill served immediately before becoming chief in Huntersville in May 2014.

This entire episode raises a number of questions besides whether the prior town board should have even approved the purchase of an armored vehicle. Why was this purchase agreement not approved by the town board? How much longer will Huntersville residents and officers have to wait for the BearCat? How much would it cost to cancel the contract and use the original funding allocated to immediately buy a used BearCat from another seller? Even if the used BearCat is finally delivered from Alexandria, how much additional funding will be needed to make repairs or upgrades?

On a similar note – The FY 2016-17 budget was approved earlier this month by a 4-3 vote, and a major point of contention was over the $1 million budget increase being sought by the police department. Supporters of this massive increase in spending, including president of the local Police Benevolent Association chapter Tom Slymon, pointed to two specific statistics as justification: a 30 percent increase in violent crime and a 15 percent increase in property crime in Huntersville. These statistics were supplied to the mayor and town board by the police department in a memorandum dated June 1, 2016, but the data are not publicly available on the police department’s website. [see memorandum below]

Bi-weekly 6-1-2016

Mark Twain has a famous quote about statistics, if I recall.

The time periods used in the memorandum are not clearly defined, but incident report data are provided through May 29, 2016. Year to date rapes and robberies in 2016 are reportedly up 100 percent, while aggravated assaults are down 5 percent, totaling a 30.43 percent increase in violent crime (murder remained at zero). Only three robberies were reported in 2015, and six so far in 2016. Zero rapes were reported in the first five months of 2015, but there have been five reported in the first five months of 2016, according to the data. 

I don’t know how going from zero to five rapes equals an increase of 100 percent, since percentage change is meaningless when starting from zero, but, more importantly, what is the police department in Huntersville doing to address the increasing rate?

Given the current disdain for the Bill of Rights among many in this country, I feel the need to remind readers that arrest and incident reports are not convictions, and those arrested are innocent until proven guilty.

Safewise.com, an online publication, ranked Huntersville 18th on its list of the 50 Safest Cities in N.C. in 2015. Huntersville will surely fall out of the Top 50 this year if the statistics being reported by the police are accurate.

Huntersville PD – just the facts ma’am

The column below originally appeared in the Herald Weekly on July 28, 2016. I have included two documents: the HPD crime stats memo and the retainer agreement with the private law firm used by HPD. No investigation was ever done by the Town Board in response to this column. Maybe certain board members will be willing to ask tougher questions during the budget process this year since it is an election year in Huntersville.

Eric


The following disclaimer is being issued at the outset to ensure it is not missed by readers who are inclined to suffer from confirmation bias or by those who may not always make it to the end of my columns. Criticism of certain aspects of administration at the Huntersville Police Department is not criticism of law enforcement in general.

To those who would question my decision to pen a column that even hints at criticism of local law enforcement given recent tragic events, I would respond by asking why is it left to a part-time opinion columnist to ask these questions and present these facts to Huntersville residents? Why did none of your elected officials in Huntersville publicly question the information provided to them in a June 1 memorandum from the HPD before voting on June 6 to approve a million-dollar increase in the police budget over last year’s budget?

The following facts are presented without comment for the consideration of The Herald Weekly readers:

• $10,599,808 was approved for HPD in the fiscal year 2015-16 budget; Commissioners Melinda Bales, Rob Kidwell and Danny Phillips voted against this budget.

• $11,630,826 was recommended for HPD in the 2016-17 budget (the approved budget has not yet been published online, so the final approved numbers may vary slightly); Commissioners Mark Gibbons, Charles Guignard and Phillips voted against this budget.

• Commissioners Gibbons, Guignard and Phillips supported an alternative 2016-17 budget voted down on June 6 that would have lowered the property tax rate and would have offset this tax cut, in part, by reducing the requested police budget increase by approximately $400,000. Commissioners Bales, Dan Boone and Kidwell voted against this alternative budget and all cited the cut in the requested police budget as a reason for their vote.

• HPD provided year-to-date crime statistics to the mayor, town board and town manager in a memorandum dated June 1 (see below), five days before the budget vote on June 6, that showed zero rapes in 2015 and five in 2016 through May 29; this memorandum showed violent crime has risen 30.43 percent from 2015.

Bi-weekly 6-1-2016

• Thus far, I have been provided with four out of the five incident reports for the rapes in 2016; one incident report is still being withheld by HPD. One incident report describes a rape that allegedly occurred in 2004, and two have been cleared by the district attorney after prosecution was declined. The two cleared rapes show clearance dates in March and April 2016, before the June 1 memorandum was provided to the board.

• Removing these three rapes from the violent crime stats would result in a violent crime increase of only 17.39 percent instead of 30.43 percent (assuming the one incident report still being withheld also shows a date in 2016).

• My initial request for public records related to the 2016 rapes was denied by HPD despite public records law to the contrary, see NCGS §132-1.4(c); I was provided three incident reports only after I pressed back and cited this law.

• HPD retains a private law firm in Greensboro – Smith Rodgers, PLLC, separate from the town attorney, for real-time tactical legal needs at a cost to taxpayers of $18,070 (see retainer agreement below) for a one-year period. This private law firm has contacted me about my routine request for records.

Smith Rodgers 2016-2017 K

I sent another request for records to HPD on July 15 for all reported rapes, sexual assaults and/or other sexual offenses reported in 2015, but I have not yet received a response. Is it possible a rape was reported in 2015 for an incident that occurred in a prior year, or were rapes reported in 2015 but ultimately not prosecuted by the district attorney like the two in 2016? Just more questions that should have been asked publicly by your elected officials in Huntersville.

Finally, I’m pleased to report the BearCat was delivered last weekend, coincidentally just in time for National Night Out. We should all sleep a little sounder tonight with this tool at HPD’s disposal.

Records requesting (in NC) made simple

The column below originally appeared in the August 18, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. My offer still stands to provide a records request template to interested individuals – just send me an email. I currently have two pending records requests – one with Huntersville regarding Police Dept. insurance revenues and one with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools regarding the “Government Relations Professional” (aka lobbyist) position recently filled by Charles Jeter. I’ll be sure to post any relevant information obtained here at the site.

Eric


Have you ever been unable to find an answer to a question you had about your local government? Have you ever wondered what official town business your elected officials were discussing via email? Have you ever wondered how much in travel, lodging and meal expenses your elected officials were charging when attending out of state conferences? I used to have similar questions that kept me up at night until I discovered Chapter 132 of the North Carolina General Statutes on Public Records. Now I can send off a records request in no time at all! By the end of this piece hopefully you too will be able to quickly and easily request the answers to these and many more questions from your local government.

A public record in NC is defined in NCGS §132-1(a) as all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of NC government or its subdivisions. §132-1(b) goes on to outline the position that public records are property of the people so the people should be able to obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise provided by law.

The default position outlined in §132-1(b) means that if any public agency denies your request for records they have to specify an applicable exemption – simply denying or ignoring a request is insufficient. For example, if your local police department declines your request for incident reports related to crime statistics cited by them in a report to the local town board ostensibly because they are protecting victims of crime, you can respond by citing to the exemptions outlined in §132-1.4(c) which specifies information that must be provided.

Drafting a records request in NC does not require you to hire a lawyer or have any special expertise. The law is designed to provide everyone easy access to government records in a timely manner. A request can be made orally or in writing and there is no specific format a written request has to take, i.e., it can be a simple email or even a handwritten note. You do not have to disclose the purpose or motive for your request pursuant to §132-6(b). And you do not have to appear in person to obtain records if those records exist in an electronic medium pursuant to §132-6.2(a). Most records can easily be scanned and emailed these days, although some historical documents may necessitate an in-person inspection. §132-9 even provides legal remedies for anyone denied access to public records.

Chapter 132 is worth reading in full and can easily be found with a quick internet search or at the NC General Assembly website. Two other great online resources for anyone wanting more information on records requests or government transparency are the UNC School of Government and the Sunshine Center of the NC Open Government Coalition. The Coates’ Canons blog at the UNC School of Government is a great place to start any local government related research and their staff are always willing to answer questions via email or phone.

Open record laws help to keep all levels of government accountable. But it takes an engaged citizenry to take advantage of these laws. If you have ever wanted to submit a records request but didn’t know how, I will gladly provide any interested reader a records request template upon request. Most of my requests are directed towards Huntersville (and have all been timely responded to thanks in part to Town Clerk Janet Pierson), but the same laws apply in Davidson and Cornelius as well. Sometimes you will be surprised what information a simple records request can uncover, but you’ll never know until you ask.

Random thoughts

This column originally appeared in the Sept. 29, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. I’ve included the services contract below between Huntersville and Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. – I’m going to try to start including source documents whenever possible here at the site since this was something I couldn’t do at the paper.

Eric


Some random thoughts and questions on topics in and around Huntersville a la the great Thomas Sowell (Google him, kids).

• Two questions about the recently announced Lake Norman Transportation Commission replacement, the North Meck Alliance, composed of officials from Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson. Why did Huntersville taxpayers fund the LNTC for years if apparently town officials are now meeting without any cost to the taxpayers? And how long before our elected leaders will be advocating for a new, salaried executive director for this North Meck Alliance?

• Did you know the Huntersville Fire Department is not actually a department of the town but a nonprofit corporation that contracts with Huntersville to provide fire, rescue and other emergency services? The most recent service agreement (see below) between Huntersville and the Huntersville Fire Department, Inc. was signed in October 2012 for a period of five years. This contract will be up for renewal next year during an election year. It will be interesting to see whether any current town board members advocate for a competitive bidding process for fire services prior to agreeing to a renewal of the current agreement. 

Fire services K

• The most depressing aspect of the presidential election isn’t the candidates we have to choose from, but how many individuals seem to believe the next president will have a greater impact on their lives than the impact each individual can have on his or her own life. Start learning more about your local government prior to municipal elections next year if you want to make a difference in an election with real impact on your life.

• Why is it that certain media outlets insist on referring to riots as protests? Some media outlets even elaborate and label what occurred in Charlotte last week as “angry” or “violent” protests. Why were police officers in “riot gear” if it was just a protest? Even if the “it was a book” narrative is later discredited by evidence (similar to the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative discredited by the Department of Justice report on the Michael Brown shooting), has this narrative now become irrefutable fact in the mind of the protesters and their sympathizers? And how long before we begin to see articles in credible publications praising the rioters for all of the economic development opportunities they created by destroying so much property in Uptown? Just think of all the glass makers who will benefit financially when they are paid to repair all the broken windows in various Uptown businesses. Not to mention all the police officers who will benefit from being paid overtime. And the defense lawyers who will get paid to represent all of those arrested during the mostly peaceful protests.

• Finally, if the recent solicitation ordinance passed by a 4-2 majority of the Huntersville town board is really all about safety, why is an exemption allowed for applicants with at least $2 million in liability insurance? Don’t the lives of people who work for organizations with just enough insurance liability coverage matter too? Since this ordinance was passed ostensibly to ensure the safety of those soliciting contributions and not to raise revenue for the town, I expect town board members to push for the application fee to be a mere $1. Commissioner Rob Kidwell cited the recent death of a homeless man soliciting on an off-ramp in Charlotte as a reason this ordinance was needed. If it is up to the town government to ensure people don’t get run over while soliciting on interstate off-ramps, is it also up to town government to ensure those people have enough money so they don’t need to beg to begin with?

There is no “but” in free speech.

The column below originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. Funny thing, when my editor emailed to inform me my columns would no longer run in the Herald she actually wrote, “I’m all for freedom of speech and opinions, but not when it affects our funding that enables us to write those opinions.” I like to think her parting words were an intentional homage to my rigorous defense of free speech a month earlier, but I have my doubts.

Since this column appeared I’ve been following the plight of Dr. Jordan Peterson in Canada. If you’re interested in the free speech debate, I would encourage you to follow him on twitter (@jordanbpeterson) or you can watch the free speech debate he participated in back in November on his youtube channel. Protections against compelled speech may be stronger in America than in Canada, but remember, the protections afforded by the First Amendment will only last as long as the majority of citizens (and judges) think in terms of free speech absolutism.

Eric


Have you ever heard someone say something along the lines of “I’m all for free speech, but …” during a two-minute hate over the latest outrage of the day? Do you know anyone who thinks it is a criminal offense (it isn’t) to engage in “hate speech”? Or have you ever seen anyone on your social media platform of choice place blame a speaker for acts of violence done by others in response to mere words uttered by that speaker? Unless you live a life of quiet solitude in a houseboat on Lake Norman, the likely answer to all three is Yes.

I am a free speech absolutist. I do not believe there is any line that can be drawn between speech that is acceptable and unacceptable because, ultimately, that would mean someone should be given power to decide when that line is crossed; I have yet to meet a person I would trust with such power. 

I am also not a child and do not need to be protected from the words or ideas of other adults no matter how much I may disagree with them. But, I do realize my outlook on speech is shaped by my own experience, which differs greatly from the safe-space seeking, trigger-warning needing, constantly offended group of future leaders currently being churned out by our high schools and colleges. The protections afforded by the First Amendment will only last as long as the majority of citizens (and judges) think as I do.

Laws prohibiting certain speech are unnecessary when violence or threats of violence are enough to silence a speaker. From Socrates to Galileo to civil rights protesters to Salman Rushdie to Charlie Hebdo in France, there have always been those willing to use violence or the threat of violence to silence their opposition rather than face them in the arena of ideas. We can now add Huntersville to this ignominious list.

Longtime Huntersville residents Ashley and Sean McMillan live on Beatties Ford Road and have had a hay bale on their property facing the road for the past five or six years that they often decorate. They decided this year to show their support for the Trump/Pence campaign by painting “Vote Trump 2016” on the hay bale. Ashley said this is the first time they have decorated the hay bale with any political message,. On the morning of Friday, Sept. 30, they awoke to find their car broken into with Ashley’s gun and other items stolen, and the hay bale vandalized with a red slash through the Trump sign.

Ashley told me she immediately repainted “Vote Trump 2016” onto the hay bale the morning of the vandalism, but later the same day decided to paint over it with a simple heart since the family was about to leave town for a few days leaving the house unattended. She is still supporting the Trump/Pence ticket but made the decision against taking a public stance again to avoid subjecting her family to further criminal acts. Her message to Herald readers, “We need to come together as a community and not judge each other on political beliefs alone.” 

Please contact the Huntersville Police Department at (704) 464-5400 if you have any information that could lead to an arrest in this matter.

Our public discourse suffers whenever people like the McMillans are forced into silence by violence or engage in self-censorship to avoid criticism because they hold less than popular opinions. This applies equally to all you miscreants who steal or destroy campaign signs every election cycle. It’s against the law, and it’s only indicative of your inability to engage in reasoned debate so just stop with the sign-stealing.

Nothing I have said here in defense of free speech is new or unique, but these things bear repeating from time to time. You can read John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (specifically Chap. II) or “Kindly Inquisitors” by Jonathan Rauch, or search “Hitchens Freedom of Speech” on your podcast app, for a much more eloquent commentary on the virtues of open debate and unfiltered discussion.