CHARLOTTE, N.C. - For the past six months, Channel 9 has been poring through financial records, receipts and overtime pay for the Charlotte Fire Department.
One firefighter, Jeffrey W. Dixon, received nearly $100,000 in overtime, more than any other employee whose base salary is $50,000 or more.
Documents obtained by Channel 9 show Dixon earned nearly all of the overtime working on the department's antique fire trucks.
Channel 9 asked Fire Chief Jon Hannan why all of that work went to Dixon. He said workers in the city maintenance shop didn't have the expertise. He said other firefighters didn’t ask for the opportunity to work on the trucks and the work wasn't advertised.
“It raises a number of questions,” said Michael Lowrey. “One -- is this cronyism?”
Lowery tracks Charlotte government spending for the John Locke Foundation, a nonpartisan North Carolina think tank.
Channel 9 showed him the six-month of findings.
For fiscal year 2013, the budget request was $104,265,085. That is up $2,953,264 over 2012.
In one document, the Fire Department presented to the city outlining its request for more money, officials stated, "We are particularly concerned with funding for vehicle maintenance."
However, Channel 9 found that during that time, Dixon’s overtime and the money he spent on antique vehicles came directly from the operating budget, money meant to run the Fire Department and protect residents.
“If they think it’s important, and since it’s not part of their core mission, be honest about it and budget for it explicitly,” Lowery said. “Make it a line item.”
A line item designation in the budget for the antique fleet would make it easier to track exactly how much money is going towards those vehicles. It currently doesn’t exist.
“People should know,” said City Manager Ron Carlee. “There should be transparency.”
Channel 9 took the findings to Carlee, who said he’s taking a much closer look at spending citywide, including the amount spent on antique fire trucks.
“I will be asking our fire chief to identify the amount of resources he plans to spend on the antique fleet,” Carlee said.
Digging through three years of receipts, Channel 9 also discovered expenses for a dog that Dixon listed as the Fire Department mascot. There was $2,300 spent for canine training, obedience classes, dog grooming, shots and boarding.
Hannan did not want to see the receipts Channel 9 found or a copy of the Facebook page, Chief the fire dog, that Channel 9 printed out. The page calls the animal “the official fire dog of the Charlotte Fire Department.” It even includes video of Dixon and the dog at parades and other videos, which are labeled as “produced by the Charlotte Fire Department.”
Hannan said because the Dalmatian appeared at community events, the department picked up the tab for the obedience classes.
A Feb. 22 post on the dog’s Facebook page states Chief was “retired due to budget cuts.”
Hannan said he doesn’t know where the dog is now.
“I don’t know. I don’t keep up with that dog,” Hannan said. “It was never ours.”
The dog's expenses also came from the department's operating budget.
Hannan said when his staff pointed that out to him, he put a stop to it.
“Does it frustrate you that that spending was happening and you weren't aware of it at the time?” Channel 9 asked Hannan.
“This whole conversation frustrates me,” he said.
Lowrey said the spending should frustrate taxpayers.
“There are a lot of veterinarians in this town and I’m sure you could find one that would provide at least basic care for the Fire Department mascot at a reduced rate or for free,” Lowrey said.
Carlee wants to assure citizens city workers will be responsible with their money.
“We’re being good stewards of their money. And I think those are the issues you're raising in your investigatory report,” Carlee said.
Carlee said he believes those antique vehicles do have historical value to the city.
He wants the Fire Department to do a better job tracking exactly how much is spent on them.
Carlee said he also plans to review overtime rules and set new guidelines for city employees.
Eyewitness News also discovered what some may consider high-end dining on the taxpayer's dime.
Channel 9 found Deputy Chief Rich Granger spent $225 at the uptown Charlotte Ruth's Chris in February 2013.
The previous spring, Granger spent $500 on dinner at Blackfinn.
Channel 9 asked Hannan why.
He said the dinners were for out-of-town assessors who test firefighters pursuing promotions.
“We have to convince six battalion chiefs from other cities to fly to Charlotte, sit here for a week and listen to 68 people say the same thing 68 times and score them and rank them,” Hannan said.
Lowrey said spending at such upscale restaurants could leave a bad taste in taxpayers' mouths.
“Do we really need to take them to the best place in town?” Lowery asked. “There may be a more efficient, cheaper way to do it that they haven't thought about and don't see a need to think about.”
Channel 9 asked Carlee to ask him if hundreds spent on high-end meals is appropriate.
He said the practice of taking assessors to dinner is common and that each meal averaged about $30, an amount Carlee called high but not excessive.
“I don’t think it’s so much of an issue of Ruth’s Chris, but how much money you spend. I will be revising our travel and meal allowances and actually go to a per diem where we actually identify upfront what is reasonable and what is not,” Carlee said.
Channel 9 uncovered other questionable spending.
Channel 9 obtained memos that Granger sent last year to fire department employees.
“I am going to put a freeze on expenditures to assist in staying within our budget,” it stated.
Two weeks after a second email from Granger about the spending freeze, receipts Channel 9 reviewed show he spent $48 for a staff treat at a Dairy Queen.
“If the budget is so tight, that memos are going out alerting everyone to watch their spending and come to us with needs that you have, was that appropriate?” Channel 9 asked.
“Standing right here, I don’t know what the circumstances of it was,” Hannan said.
Lowrey said that spending sets a bad example .
“There are rules for us and there are rules for them on high and those up top live by different rules. That can breed resentment among the ranks,” Lowery said.
Carlee believes an ice cream treat can show employees they're appreciated, but he acknowledged that given the timing, it may not look good to outsiders.
“If you're sending a message that we're in tight times, that we have to watch every penny that we spend, then you have to watch every penny you spend,” Carlee said.
Carlee said policy changes are coming because of the Channel 9 investigation including:
- A revised cap on how much money city employees can spend on meals. A new way to track how much money the Fire Department spends on its antique vehicles.
- Carlee will also review the city's overtime policy.
- The city's internal auditor will review employee purchases after Eyewitness News uncovered thousands spent on training, vet care, boarding and grooming on a Dalmatian the fire chief says never even belonged to his department.
- Carlee promises these new policies will increase oversight to ensure your money is spent properly.
“At the end of the day, this is not our money, it is the taxpayers’ money,” Carlee said.