Moments before Huntersville commissioners voted unanimously to hire Anthony Roberts as Huntersville’s new town manager during their May 7 meeting, Mayor John Aneralla said the town got exactly what they were looking for.
“We wanted to have someone who was able to hit the ground running,” Aneralla said, referencing Roberts’ knowledge of the community and the region through his current role as Cornelius town manager. Aneralla added that of the 26 candidates who applied for the Huntersville job, 13 were from places other than North Carolina.
“But sometimes,” Aneralla said, “the right person is right next to you.”
And so it goes, for all of the towns in north Mecklenburg.
A bigger stage
Roberts, who began working in Cornelius as assistant town manager in 2001 and started a 15-year run as town manager two years later, starts in Huntersville June 5. He will experience a $20,000 bump in pay at $180,000 a year – part of a deal that also included a $6,000 signing bonus – and assumes administration duties in a town approximately twice the size of Cornelius.
In discussing his move last week, Roberts admitted money was a consideration, but the challenges of a larger setting symbolizing a step up on the career ladder drew him to the job.
“It was something I went after,” Roberts said. “It is a job that intrigues me. Huntersville is bigger than Cornelius, 60,000 (residents) compared to 30,000, and I know that can mean bigger problems and issues, but there is also a tremendous opportunity to grow and make some significant achievements.”
Roberts’ move to Huntersville comes a little more than two years after longtime Cornelius Finance Director Jackie Huffman took the same path. Aneralla also referenced that connection at the town board meeting.
“He also happened to train someone who we think highly of,” Aneralla said of Roberts, with a nod toward Huffman.
Huffman, currently serving as Huntersville’s interim town manager, will resume duties as assistant town manager and finance director when Roberts arrives. She said her decision to leave Cornelius in 2016 involved the same reasons Roberts described.
“Did Huntersville pay me more money? Yes,” Huffman said, “but it was also a different opportunity. Each town has its way of operating, and this was a something I wanted to do.”
A steady occurrence
The departure of a top administrator is not common for local municipalities, but the loss of staff members to other towns – and concerns that trend is growing – has become a regular topic of north Mecklenburg conversations.
Police officers lured from local departments by higher pay in neighboring towns has been discussed in Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville. And the fact that Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones has included a 6.5 percent raise for police officers in his proposed budget is likely to increase the focus on that topic.
It’s a problem Davidson Police Chief Penny Dunn and Huntersville Police Chief Cleveland Spruill have been emphasizing for quite a while. And one that Cornelius Chief Bence Hoyle feels is growing.
“We’ve lost 35 people in the last three years,” Hoyle said during the Cornelius May 7 budget workshop. “The most recent was to Huntersville, and I think two are in the process for Charlotte. It’s the worst we’ve ever had as far as staffing and being able to recruit.”
Hoyle added that he’s heard Charlotte officers are even offered a “finder’s fee” incentive for recruiting officers from other agencies.
“I don’t want to be an alarmist,” Hoyle said, “but I’ll tell you, we’ve got to address this issue or it’s going to start affecting service.”
Spruill said he lost two officers recently to higher paying jobs and, in addition to seeking higher pay, his department has increased efforts to improve morale and job satisfaction.
“We relaxed some rules about tattoos and facial hair,” Spruill said, “and we try to provide little extras where we can. It’s something you always want to do because morale is a big part of job satisfaction.”
Impacts in all departments
But police officers are not the only target.
“It applies to every member of the town staff,” Davidson Town Manager Jamie Justice said. “You want the best people, and when you have them, you want to keep them. It’s something you are always aware of.”
And Davidson commissioners have acknowledged the importance of that effort.
In his 2018-19 budget proposal, Justice earmarked $79,000 to finance merit raises for town employees. At a recent budget workshop, Davidson Commissioner Matthew Fort – who has been vocal about urging Finance Director Piet Swart to trim pieces off the budget in multiple categories – was the one who asked Justice if he thought that was enough to adequately compensate the staff.
“I think everyone realizes the importance of keeping quality staff members,” Justice said, “but you also understand they have to do what’s best for themselves and their families. Sometimes, they get an offer they have to take. And that’s really a compliment to us about the quality of our people.”
Roberts said he is aware of the importance of recruiting and retaining quality staff and said Huntersville has had significant turnover in various departments.
“When the economy is good, people are looking,” he said told the Cornelius board during budget discussions. The draft budget includes an average 3-percent merit raise for employees.
That economic reality was also a reason Huffman cited for including a 4-percent raise for town employees in the budget package in Huntersville.
Jack Simoneau, Huntersville’s planning director for the last 17 years, supports efforts to retain staff members when possible.
“It’s disruptive when someone leaves.” Simoneau said. “You basically start from scratch bringing someone else up to speed.”
Cornelius Mayor Woody Washam, speaking about Roberts’ departure for Huntersville, agreed.
“We are sorry to have this change happen,” Washam told attendees of his recent Connecting Cornelius meeting, “but sometimes change is good.”
The Cornelius town board has already identified Assistant Town Manager Andrew Grant as Roberts’ successor.