By Jesse Wood
May 8, 2014. Following a closed session meeting to discuss its legal options on Wednesday evening, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to direct Sheriff Len Hagaman to investigate the financial dealings of the Todd Fire Department.
A couple months ago, Watauga County began conducting an audit and within that county-wide audit, smaller audits of county fire departments. When the county’s auditors requested documentation from the fire departments, Todd Fire Department was the only one that didn’t fix problems addressed by the county’s auditing firm Bryce Holder and wouldn’t provide the requested information, according to Chair Nathan Miller, who represents District 5 that includes the community of Todd.
“So we withheld money,” Miller said.
Miller added that “very recently” the Todd Fire Department released what was thought to have been all of the requested documentation, so County Manager Deron Geouque once again released funds. Geouque said that the county provides $80,000 to $83,000 annually to the Todd Fire Department. That is in addition to funds from Ashe County.
“Now we come back and find that the all documents we wanted [weren’t provided],” Miller said, adding that the county was basically stuck in between a rock and a hard place when trying to get to the bottom of this issue because fire departments need gas money to respond to structure fires and emergencies.
“So that’s one issue,” Miller said.
Also at hand are allegations of misuse of taxpayer money.
Two weeks ago, Michael Williams, a concerned citizen, requested in writing to the county managers of both the Watauga and Ashe County to open a formal investigation and withhold financial support of the fire department.
Williams alleged that Fire Chief Chris Welch sold a computer to the fire department for $9,178 in 2012 and that Welch’s son-in-law Matt Royal was paid $22,595 to complete repairs on the firehouse in 2012.
In the letter, Williams blasted the department for “blatant disregard for ‘Best Practices and Ethical Conduct” and said that the department has been “totally nonresponsive to my requests for information,” including prior tax returns.
“I am continuing to uncover significant questionable and improper use of our tax dollars, public donations and money paid directly to members of the Department and in fact standing Board members, all of which have been approved by the Board of Directors and paid by Fire Department,” Williams wrote.
On Thursday morning, Welch said while he wasn’t aware of last night’s vote by the commissioners, he welcomes the investigation.
He also said this talk of “misappropriating fire tax money” began when the board of the Todd Fire Department voted to increase the fire tax by one cent.
“We haven’t done anything wrong. All of our money is board approved,” Welch said. “I don’t deal with money except whatever they tell me to do with it.”
Welch said that the “$9,000 computer” wasn’t a computer. He said it was a radio system called a repeater that normally costs $18,000. He said he purchased the repeater through Motorola of which he was a dealer.
“So that was an error on the auditor’s report. They had the invoice, and I don’t know who thought that was a computer,” Welch said. “It’s a repeater, just like the county buys.”
As for the repair work done by his son-in-law, Welch said that the his son-in-law and another gentleman own a company called Mountaineer Roofing, which performed repairs to roof and siding that occurred in a storm and suffered hail damage.
Welch added that the nearly $23,000 of repairs weren’t paid for with taxpayer funds. Welch said the fire department’s insurance company estimated the repairs and provided the funds to cover the cost of the repairs.
“I have no problem whatsoever with an investigation by the SBI or the Sheriff’s Department. Either one, I’d be happy to meet with them and go over everything,” Welch said.
When contacted on Thursday morning, Sheriff Len Hagaman mentioned that his office was going to coordinate with the State Bureau of Investigation and meet in the SBI’s Hickory office on Friday or Monday.
“I don’t know how much information [this investigation will] involve,” Hagaman said. “It will require, obviously, going over some records and such. I’ll let the SBI and the District Attorney’s office worry about [the timeframe of the investigation].”
Chair Nathan Miller mentioned that he wasn’t rushing to judgment. But with the allegations from citizens coupled with the auditor’s problems, the commissioners felt it warranted an investigation to settle the matter.
“I don’t know if anything wrong was done. I know it’s not the way we run the county, but I don’t know if it rises to the level of criminal,” Miller said. “I’ve talked to the chair of the board and the chief of the fire department. The chairman of the board says they voted on those expenditures we are calling into question and their board has approved of them.”
Miller added that it will likely be on the concerned citizens of the fire district to settle the matter if the investigation doesn’t turn up illegal activity.
“If citizens of Todd don’t approve of their board, then go to the annual board meeting and vote for different board members,” Miller said.