ASHE COUNTY-For several years, the Todd Fire Department didn’t file a tax return.
This revelation by concerned citizen Mike Williams elicited gasps from audience members in attendance during Tuesday’s community meeting at the Riverside Restaurant in Todd.
The purpose of the meeting was to address the grievances of the community concerning the various shortcomings of the fire department’s directors and if the non-profit could return to operational status. Residents crowded together elbow-to-elbow as they clamored for breathing space while listening to Williams’s list the violations and questionable practices of the former fire chief and the department’s board. The meeting was also intended as a lead-up to the fire department’s board of directors’ meeting on Oct. 5. Those who gathered Tuesday night are forming as an opposition group to the current board of directors that will meet next week.
Last month, the department was grounded when a lapse in insurance was reported by the state insurance commission. Creston, Fleetwood, Deep Gap and Meat Camp fire departments have agreed to cover the Todd area until a resolution of dissolution is determined.
In addition to missing insurance payments, Williams said there was very little oversight by the board in conducting financial transactions and oversight by external agencies.
While Watauga County requires a certified accountant to thoroughly examine departmental finances, Williams said the same cannot be said about the Ashe County manager’s office and board of commissioners.
There was also a missed payment to the USDA. Nine months after missing this payment, former fire chief Chris Welch requested and was granted a loan for an excess of $36,000 from the department, said Williams. According to the latest reports, that loan is still outstanding. Welch was receiving a salary of $51,000 annually at that time. The list of the alleged transgressions by the department is not limited to Welch, who hasn’t responded to a request for comment on the loan.
While a treasurer typically doesn’t receive a salary due to the perceived possibility of a conflict of interest, Jason Eller received $13,860 to provide these services to the fire department, said Williams. In addition, Welch’s son-in-law, Matthew Royal reportedly received $2,400 to perform repair work to the fire house. Also, Williams said Welch’s mother received more than $7,000 to provide a parking spot on her personal property for the fire department’s mobile command center, which now sits unused.
“For a small fire department that responds to eight fires a year, we are paying a boatload of money to a fire department that was so upside down, they were shut down,” said Williams. “All during that time $1.43 million was given to them.”
Williams stressed that the firefights that serve at the department had nothing to do with the alleged malfeasance.
“The guys fighting fires out there didn’t do this,” said Williams. “They need to be taken care of.”
“What are our options going forward to keep the insurance protection class we have now?” asked one community member.
“We have the opportunity to work with the fire department,” said Williams. “The board of directors has to report to us. It’s up to us to make sure they comply with the by-laws.”
Williams then listed the group’s options going forward.
“Our options are to call for 50 signatures to come from the membership, so we can request a special meeting and special election,” said Williams. “My suggestion to this point is us to go the meeting on Oct. 5. The other suggestion is to request this meeting and specify it be an election meeting, so we can go in knowing we can vote out these people who created this mess and vote in (new members).”
Another option is for all in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting to show up at the Oct. 5 meeting and stand up in unison to make a motion to dissolve the current board and vote in a new board, said Williams. This would require those in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting to outnumber those in support of the current board at the Oct. 5 meeting. After that, a new board could re-negotiate the current loans by the fire department’s corporation.
Williams said one of the first things he will do at the Oct. 5 meeting is to request the resignation of the current board.
“Once a new board is in place, there will be a new set of bylaws,” said Williams. “There will also be a new conflict of interest clause written, so this can’t happen again.”
After much discussion on their options, the community members agreed to request a special meeting to address their concerns.
Another citizen inquired about the possibility of Meat Camp Fire Department taking over services for Todd.
Williams said he, too, has explored that option and allow Meat Camp to take Todd over as a satellite office. The only problem with this alternative is that option doesn’t resolve the issue of the outstanding debt.
Tuesday’s meeting did not come without controversy either from dissenting members. Other community members disagreed with Williams on how to approach the special meeting and expressed their concerns over alienating current firefighters and their families.
“Your voice isn’t the only one in the room,” one man shouted at Williams as a woman offered a differing opinion on how to approach the current board members.
Reach Jesse Campbell at (336) 846-7164.