News 13 Investigates: Loans made to Skyland Fire Department

Skyland fire battled the blaze at Michelle Burton's home, but as her financial problems burned on, Skyland was in the middle of their own financial fiasco. They too asked for help, sounding a different alarm. (Photo Credit: WLOS Staff)

There are questions over loans that amount to more than $500,000 in unbudgeted payments to one Buncombe County fire department.

While the money seems to be accounted for, it's the process that is being called into question by some residents.

It raised enough concern from residents in one area of the county they met Thursday night with county commission members and leaders.

You want them there when trouble strikes

“It's sad, it was just sad,” Michelle Burton said while thinking about her family’s home on Christ School Road.

Last year, Burton’s home of more than 20 years caught fire and burned.

“I cry, my children cry, anytime we go over there, it's just the memories,” said Burton.

Burton wasn't living there, downsizing for medical reasons, but the home was full of personal items.

“It was things my children had made when they were in daycare, and preschool, and kindergarten, things I'll never be able to replace,” said Burton.

Adding to her frustration, arson investigators never found a cause, so her insurance wouldn't pay, which put the Burton's in a financial bind. The home's now in foreclosure.

“We were devastated, we got no help from anyone,” said Burton.

Skyland Fire battled Burton's blaze, and as Burton's financial problems burned, Skyland was in the middle of its own financial problems. It, too, asked for help. But it's how it did it that's sounding a different alarm.

Loans between departments

In July, before former chief Dennis Presley retired, Skyland Fire borrowed $150,000 from the Riceville Fire Department.

“We had a payroll due at the end of the week, so we needed to do something quickly,” Skyland Fire Department Board treasurer Ned Fowler said.

Fowler said the Skyland board, which handles the finances, knew nothing about the loan the chief asked for and never approved it. That loan, however, created outrage among Riceville residents who somehow learned about it.

“You're bringing us into disrepute. If there's any questions about mismanagement of money, that needs to be taken seriously and it needs to be public,” said one woman who addressed the Riceville board at its November meeting.

“Don’t be afraid. If you think this board needs to be redone, put your hand in the air and let them know that we are not satisfied,” another resident said..

Mark Dillingham, who is now vice president of Riceville's board and is also a chief for Skyland, took the vote with board members to move money from Riceville to Skyland over the phone. According to one board member, there were no public minutes published from that call, which appears to go against the department's contract with Buncombe County.

“It was approved by a phone call to several or a couple of board members, enough to get a unanimous vote, and that was it,. It wasn't presented to the other board members,” said Merle Johnson, a board member who resigned over the issue.

Skyland also borrowed another $125,000 from a Skyland Fire Department employee in July, according to its treasurer.

“That firefighter was willing to make that offer, and he had just sold some property and had the cash available,” said Fowler.

County loans and ties to former manager Wanda Greene

A News 13 investigation found it's not the first time the fire department's been short for payroll. For two years, former county manager Wanda Greene advanced the department money, $425,000 in August of 2015 and $500,000 in July of 2016, according to records provided by Buncombe County to News 13.

“We were anticipating that the county would be doing the same thing that they had been doing in previous years,” said Fowler.

Current county manager Mandy Stone wouldn't advance Skyland the money this year, without it being part of the budget ordinance.

“The new county manager did not feel like that they would be able to do the same thing they had done in previous year,” said Fowler.

The county declined an on-camera interview, instead saying, "the former county manager had an informal agreement with the former Skyland chief … (Presley), but there was no board approval," for the loan.

In October, the county granted Skyland an advancement, this time for $84,600 for reimbursement of money spent during the Party Rock fire. News 13 asked Skyland's finance director why the department's so short on funds.

“We allowed over a several year period the reserves to dwindle more than we should have. That was an error on our part as a board,” said Fowler.

And when News 13 asked where did those tax dollar reserves go?

“Payroll is the largest percentage of that,” said Fowler.

Skyland's solution

The department's payroll increased because it is covering more neighborhoods, and, with grant funding expiring, the department has tapped reserves. To improve its financials, the board recently cut $174,000 in spending, including $15,000 for its Christmas budget and awards banquet. Skyland's paid Buncombe County and Riceville back for the loans, but it still owes an employee $125,000.

“We anticipate paying that back in December,” said Fowler.

The county held a community meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday to deal with issues in Riceville raised by the community. County commissioners said they'll be discussing the board’s actions, policies and procedures.

County leaders also said there will be meetings with county fire departments to talk about funding issues and changing the way the county hands over sales and property tax dollars to departments. Additional meetings are expected to be scheduled in 2018.

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