BOONE—On Wednesday, May 7, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to have Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman examine the financial records of the Todd Volunteer Fire Department.
“The county is still waiting for our auditing firm to complete the audit,” said Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque. “I think part of the Board’s frustration was the fact it has taken Todd so long to respond to the auditors and that is the concern they have. They directed me, as county manager, to contact the Sheriff to request that the SBI (State Bureau of Investigation) come in and start an initial investigation.”
Geouque said the county is not making allegations against the fire department, which covers both Ashe and Watauga counties, but to complete an audit, which Watauga requires the fire districts to submit every year.
“The Board’s concern is that it has taken Todd so long to respond,” he said.
Nathan Miller, the Watauga Board of Commissioners chairman, and representative for the Todd district, said he had previously approached the North Carolina SBI about investigating (the department’s finances), but said they would typically not initiate an investigation at the request of a County Commissioner.
“They weren’t real keen on looking into a fire department,” he said. “They said it doesn’t get them anywhere and it’s just more trouble than its worth.”
The SBI will only investigate when a request is made by a district attorney or sheriff’s department, according to Miller.
Miller said the Board has been receiving calls from Todd residents in both Ashe and Watauga counties, and the county’s fire board, comprised of the Watauga County fire chiefs, passed a resolution requesting the county to withhold Todd’s funding.
Todd VFD Fire Chief Chris Welch acknowledged Watauga is withholding the money for now.
“Recently, our fire commission voted to ask the county to hold all money from Todd until they got their act together,” he said. “It’s a nonbinding resolution, but it would be all fire chiefs in Watauga County voting that way.”
Welch provided emails and other documents to the Jefferson Post showing the Todd VFD has been in continuous contact with Watauga County about the questions surrounding the department’s financial situation.
“They told us they had everything that they needed,” he said. “We did not hear a word from them until May 6 at 4:58 p.m. requesting more copies of receipts.”
Welch said delays in providing the information requested by the auditor resulted from a computer malfunction, which required the VFD to search for the required information manually, to help complete their audit.
Watauga’s Commission Chairman Miller said questions were raised about large payments from the department to Welch.
According to an audit submitted to Watauga County by Bryce Holder CPA in April 2013, the Todd VFD had purchases of $35,212 which included “turnout gear, I Book computers, a new station sign and other equipment, for the year ending June 30, 2012.”
“A portion of the amount paid for equipment acquisitions was paid to FRP Electronics, which is owned by the Department’s fire chief, Chris Welch. The total amount paid to the electronics company during the June 30, 2012 year was $9,178 for computer equipment and installation of the equipment,” according to the audit. “The Department also paid $22,595 of the repairs and maintenance amount to firefighter Matt Royal for renovations to the fire station. All transactions were approved by the membership and completed at fair market value.”
According to an invoice provided by Welch, the $9,178 was used for a 150 watt amplifier, duplexers and other items used for communications. These purchases were made Feb. 3, Feb. 27 and May 24, 2012.
“That is a VHF repeater that is sitting on top of Laurel Knob, ” Welch said. “It’s the same repeater system Watauga County uses. They are about $18,000, and I sold that to them for $9,178.” Welch said the additional money for repairs and maintenance occurred after a hail storm damaged their roof and was covered by insurance.