BY DONNIS BAGGETT
Tara Huff is a one-woman newspaper staff with a very big story on her hands.
As the owner/publisher/editor/ad manager of the Fritch Eagle Press, Huff wears many hats. But for the past year the hat she's worn most often is that of government watchdog.
In the spring of 2013, the publisher heard whispers that the city of Fritch, population 2,700, was in deep financial trouble. She began asking questions and examining public records. What she found left her very concerned about her hometown:
The city was horribly behind on its bills — $400,000 behind.
One vendor who was owed $88,000 was on the verge of repossessing the city's trash cans.
Another vendor was about to repossess the radar units in the police cars.
Electricity for the city's water pumps was about to be cut off because the bill hadn't been paid.
City employees' life insurance policies had been canceled due to lack of payment.
The city had missed one bond payment. (It has since missed two more.)
The city had not made a payment on a new police car that it had bought on credit.
The city's credit rating dropped from Triple B minus to D.
Still more troubling facts surfaced:
The city manager had promoted his wife to become the city's emergency medical services director. He also had hired a friend as city secretary. The city secretary's mother was hired as the municipal court clerk. And the city secretary's father was hired for a newly created position as the city's chief financial officer.
Huff reached the city manager by cell phone as he and the city secretary were out of town traveling to a training seminar.
"I asked him about the credit rating and he said really it wasn't a big deal. I asked him how we were doing on paying our bills and he said we were doing just fine. What he didn't know was that I had already called vendors and asked where we stood..."
Huff began publishing stories on the city's financial mess. City council members called to ask if she could back up her stories. She could, and did. The city manager resigned and John Horst, a retired city manager with a strong financial background, was brought in to clean up the mess.
The city secretary resigned soon afterward, and her father the finance manger and her mother the court clerk were let go. Eventually 11 positions were cut — about one-third of the city's staff. The city managed to stave off the repossessions of the trash cans and radar units, and electric service for the water pumps was retained.
The bad news just kept on coming, however. The new city manager discovered that the city of Fritch owed more than $93,000 to the IRS because officials had stopped making payments to the federal government for taxes withheld from employees' paychecks. He also found that the city owed the state of Texas thousands in city court fees that were collected but never sent to Austin.
Huff also learned that more than $60,000 was missing from city's economic development fund. Another $52,000 was missing from crime prevention board account. Altogether, some $450,000 was gone from nine special accounts, Huff reported.
The district attorney launched an investigation. The Texas Attorney General's office and the Texas Rangers are now involved, and an outside audit was ordered.
Along the way, evidence surfaced that city employees had been allowed to sign IOU's to borrow city money interest-free for home loans, clothes, computers, birthday parties and other personal needs.
The city staff, which was a little over 30 people at its height in 2012, was treated to a Christmas party at an area restaurant that year. A hundred adults and 25 children attended. Each received a gift valued at $30. The party featured three margarita machines and door prizes, including bottles of top-shelf whiskey. At the time, the city was in financial free fall, but only insiders knew it.
Fast forward one year later, to Christmas 2013: Only 12 months after the big Christmas party of 2012, the city of Fritch didn't have enough money to hang its Christmas lights.
"Volunteers came out of the woodwork to fix the old ones...and then the next week I was able to write about how somebody stepped up and we were able to have Christmas lights," Huff said.
It was nice to have some good news to report, she recalled.
Huff attributes many of the city's problems to well-meaning city council members who where too trusting of administrators over the years. "You need to ask questions and demand answers," she said.
The past year has taken a toll on the small-town publisher. She says the paper's advertising revenue has fallen off as she's been tied up chasing the story, and that she's had threats made against her — some by people in authority whom she declines to identify.
One council member pushed hard for the city to move its public notices to another newspaper in the county, saying that Huff exercised "undue influence" on the city's governmental process.
That didn't go over well with the public, however. More than 70 concerned citizens appeared at a city council meeting in support of Huff and her newspaper, and the council — including the member critical of Huff — voted unanimously to continue publishing the city's notices in the Eagle Press.
Huff's coverage of the story has boosted readership. Circulation, which was about 600 when she bought the Eagle Press on April Fool's Day 2010, is now almost 1,000.
And after the pivotal council meeting, a local business owner impressed by Huff's coverage said he wants to place a standing ad in the paper.
"Most of the public is very supportive," Huff said. "Some get upset because I don't publish enough, give them enough detail. Then some officials are very upset because I'm printing too much. I've had a council person tell me that there's some things that the public just didn't need to know."
In addition to the business and political pressures Huff has encountered, her mother passed away from a lengthy illness during the stressful time.
Nevertheless, Huff remains optimistic. "I don't think things will ever be the same, but every storm ends eventually, right? I think things will one day eventually calm down. The city may not get the answers that they want, but that doesn't mean that change won't happen."
Huff said the experience has given her "a better understanding and appreciation for investigative reporting."
"It's a lot more tedious than some people think it is. It's poring over documents, cataloging what people say and piecing it together."
Huff says the support of her readers inspires her to keep going.
"I am extremely honored by how the people rallied behind me and their hometown paper. It amazes me and humbles me. It even scares me a bit. I do not want to let them down...
"What can I say? Fritch has issues, but truly, the people are wonderful."