TODD-A sometimes tense three hour meeting Thursday night brought little in the way of concrete answers for embattled Todd Volunteer Fire and Rescue – but community members may have devised a path to restart the shuttered operation.
Ashe and Watauga County residents joined Todd board members and firefighters at a packed South Fork Baptist Church on Oct. 5, to find out exactly what forced the operation to halt its fire and rescue services in August, after financial problems led to a lapse in the department’s insurance coverage.
Todd Fire and Rescue Board Chairman Andrew Jestes offered his take on what led to the problems and concerned citizens offered their thoughts on how an operation that is given some $200,000 in taxpayer funding each year could find itself in such dire straights.
By the end of the night, in a somewhat unexpected move, the department’s bylaws had been rewritten to expand seats on its board of directors, from seven seats to nine, and temporary leaders stepped up to offer their services – and a community voice – until a formal installation process can take place.
The new leadership will now have an opportunity to negotiate with Ashe and Watauga County on Oct. 9, about potentially receiving frozen funding that had been cut off when the department ceased operations in August.
Plans were also laid to host an upcoming meeting, likely on Oct. 12, to allow Todd citizens a chance to consider who should sit permanently on the department’s newly expanded board of directors.
How’d we get here?
The Todd Fire Department’s recent financial difficulties began to emerge last summer when the department held a sit-down with Yadkin Valley Bank executives in a successful attempt to stave off foreclosure proceedings after the bank filed a civil suit against the department in May 2016. The bank’s action was an attempt to collect on loans – that at the time exceeded $400,000 – Yadkin Bank said Todd Volunteer Fire & Rescue defaulted on.
In August, Todd Fire operations came to an abrupt halt after Ashe County Emergency Management Coordinator Patty Gambill said the department’s insurance lapsed. That move necessitated that multiple area fire departments – including Creston, Fleetwood, Deep Gap and Meat Camp along with the Ashe County Rescue Squad – be placed on standby to pick up the slack in Todd’s district in the wake of the department’s problems.
County officials from both Ashe and Watauga Counties later met with Todd Fire leadership and outlined a series of steps the department must take to right its financial ship, including:
1. Sign and execute contract with Ashe County.
2. Verify volunteer firefighter roster.
3. Dialogue with First National Bank to restructure loans.
4. Reinstate property and liability and workers comp insurance.
5. Dual Signatures on checks
6. Update USDA on department status.
7. Establish new bank accounts.
8. Secure the fire station and equipment.
9. Review all training records.
10. Provide one years’ worth of bank statements.
11. Provide a list of all unpaid bills.
12. Todd Fire Department Board of Directors to meet with community to discuss current and future status of the department.
It’s unclear at present how many of those, with the exception of the last step, the department has completed.
In August, Todd Fire Chief Chris Welch also resigned.
Previous reports detailing Todd’s financial status noted questionable practices, including the absence of W2’s and unreconciled bank accounts and the fire department’s board of directors’ approval to loan Welch $37,000 for the purpose of helping his personal business.
When asked the status of that loan and if he had made any payments on it as of late by Post reporters in August, Welch deferred comment. Reports also found several unaccounted for transactions and revenues. Welch said those issues have been resolved but did not elaborate.
How it happened Thursday
Todd Fire Board Chairman Andrew Jestes was joined at Thursday night’s meeting by board members Gary Wilson, Dean Williams and Hattie Bledsoe. Wilson and Williams are long serving members of the board; Jestes has held his position for roughly two years and Bledsoe was appointed to her position in recent weeks.
Additionally, one other Todd board member, Eric Davis, was not in attendance at the Oct. 5, meeting.
Jestes largely held the meeting, which at times grew heated, in check by warning audience members that they would receive a warning for an out-of-turn outburst before being escorted out by Ashe County Sheriff’s Office personnel. Only one person was led from the packed church hall.
He also offered his take on the sequence of events that led to the department’s summer shutdown. Jestes said the department receives the bulk of its funding from Ashe and Watauga Counties at the tail end of the year, so money for operations is sometimes tight in the summer months.
When the department’s insurance bill came due this year, he said he reached out to Ashe and Watauga Counties to see if they could release early some of the funds that would be due to the department, a move he said both had agreed to at times in the past.
Though Watauga County had no money allotted to release to the department – Jestes said Ashe County held a small amount that would have kept the department going – no money was released. He said Lifestore Bank was also unwilling to work with the department regarding its insurance issues this summer, which necessitated the shutdown.
“I contacted the Watauga County Manager and was told that our money had been held due to, ‘not really wanting them to get the money out in the wrong hands,” Jestes said. “Therefore at the time Watauga County did not have money held from us, but Ashe County did. It was a very small amount but it was enough to keep us going. And so here we are today working through some of this stuff and working to get our insurance back.”
He said he also couldn’t answer detailed financial questions about the department because most of its records have been seized by the North Carolina Department of Insurance as part of an ongoing criminal investigation. He did, however, touch on issues regarding payment and loans to former Todd Fire Chief Chris Welch including a supposed $51,000 payment to Welch.
“$31,200 was Chief Welch’s salary,” Jestes said. “As I said in those months July-September, the fire department was low on money. Chief Welch went out of his own pocket and gave money to the fire department. That is how it survived through those months until we got that money coming back from the county so we get our numbers back where we can set down and figure what we owed to one another I can’t tell you who owes what because we have no way to find out. Chief Welch lent the department $50,000. So, $20,000 of that came back to Welch and that is where that figure of $51,000 came out to the public. It was his yearly salary plus part of what the department owed him.”
Other attendees, including longtime firefighter Danny Hodges, questioned an unrelated “business loan,” the department gave Welch.
“There was a loan approved by the board for Chief Welch and Deputy Chief Joe Worley for some kind of business loan,” Jestes said. “That was paid back – not all that was paid back – I know $20,000 was paid back…but there is still an outstanding difference there and that will be resolved.”
He said the board has been working with Ashe and Watauga Counties to meet their list of requirements to re-start Todd’s operations, though much of that work cannot be completed until the department receives funding from either county. The department will no longer have two paid staff members on its payroll, a move that will free up some $70,000 per year – more than enough to get Todd’s operations back on track, according to Jestes.
“We’re trying to work on the loans and seeing what options we have there, going over our roster and training records, we have established new bank accounts, we’ve been requested one year’s worth of bank statements, secured the building so that only firefighters have access to the building and also our paperwork has been locked up and only the board member’s have access,” Jestes said. “We’ll have a CPA in place and they’ll be handling every bill. There will be no question of any kind of embezzlement – where did this money go or that money go. It’ll also require dual signatures.”
Jestes then attempted to field questions from the audience – many voiced by Hodges – until Todd property owner and attorney Kas DeCarvalho approached the podium. Jestes had previously told the audience that the department’s bylaws would not allow for removal of board members or the installation of new leaders.
DeCarvalho told the audience that the board serves at the pleasure of the community and that it could take action that night to appoint new leaders or expand the board’s membership.
The membership discussed ways to appoint new community oversight on Todd Fire’s board of directors – which is currently comprised mainly of Todd fire personnel. Some Todd firefighters at the meeting, including longtime Todd Fire & Rescue member Lizi Royal, voiced concerns that a board comprised totally of community members would lack the perspective of the department’s firefighters when making decisions.
The community ultimately agreed to a compromise solution by expanding the board’s membership to nine seats and appointing five new board members on an interim basis until the community can consider permanent appointments in coming weeks.
At least one meeting is scheduled to be held on Oct. 12, – again at South Fork Baptist Church – though it is unclear at this time if new board members will be voted on at that meeting.
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.