By Clint Parker
In November of 2017, the Tribune/Leader broke the story reporting that a check for $150,000 had been written to Skyland Fire Department from the Riceville Fire Department without the knowledge of either of the fire stations’ board of directors. Leicester Leader reporter Chad Nesbitt’s investigative article started a series of reports by our newspaper group.
Now 15 months later, numerous articles from multiple news sources have revealed some facts that raise questions that still haven’t been answered. Now, a Federal investigation into the financial dealings of the Skyland Fire Department might be able to get resolutions to many of the questions the press have not been able to expose, like how a department that gets millions annually needs to borrow $150,000 to make payroll.
We usually keep our coverage to the North Buncombe and Leicester communities, but since all county taxpayers should be concerned with where and how their money is being spent by government-supported agencies like these fire districts, I felt like this story needed a commentary as some of these fire districts appear to be operated like chiefdoms or “thiefdoms.”
The Tribune/Leader broke the Fed investigation story last week on our Leicesterleader.com website (see story page 1) in this week’s paper. Nesbitt also was the reporter on that story. Nesbitt has continued to look into the developing saga over the last 15 months, gathering information – some of which could be substantiated and some of which couldn’t. We reported what we could corroborate.
It’s unknown whether this investigation by Federal authorities was initiated because of former Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene’s legal troubles and the investigation into her under the table dealings, or because of one of the many stories reported on by the media. It also could be a combination of both, but the investigation is necessary because the local press, such as ourselves, carried the story about as far as we could.
Last year the Riceville Fire Department held several public meetings regarding the actions of then-board president Mark Dillingham. Buncombe County EMS director Jerry VeHaun and Buncombe County Commissioners Mike Fryar and Ellen Frost sat in attendance as Buncombe County Attorney Michael Frue and then Buncombe County Finance Director Tim Flora answered questions from the public. Flora explained to the crowd that the $150,000 had been repaid back to the Riceville Fire Department. Flora said, “This looks like a loan.” The public in attendance at that meeting didn’t like that answer.
Really! A loan? Except for the man writing the check, Mark Dillingham, who was on the board at Riceville and worked at Skyland, nobody on either fire department’s boards knew of the “loan.” That sounds more like a private checkbook to me. Now, Dillingham has been fired at Skyland but appears to remain on Riceville’s board.
Those in attendance at the meeting also had a hard time believing such a story. Buncombe County arranged for an audit of the department’s finances, and as far as we know, those results have never been made public.
It’s unclear if that audit might also have been part of the reason Federal investigators stepped in and we may never know. Whatever caused the Feds to pick up the ball and run with it, let’s hope their probe gets to the bottom of things.