The Tribune/Leader recently reported Skyland Fire Department Division Chief Mark Dillingham wrote a check for $150,000 from the Riceville Fire Department to the Skyland Fire Department. Dillingham, who was also President of the Riceville Fire board at the time, stepped down as president amid the controversy at the board’s Nov. 13 meeting. The Tribune/Leader obtained a copy of the check which had Dillingham’s signature.
Skyland’s board members knew nothing about the check. Two board members at the Riceville board’s Nov 13 meeting called the transaction “sketchy” and resigned from the board saying they “want no part of their [the department’s] dealings.” Taxpayers in Riceville, at the same board meeting, and some in the Skyland area are calling for the county commissioners and County Fire Marshal/EMS Director Jerry VeHaun to take over both fire departments and ask law enforcement for an investigation into the financial dealings.
On November 14, the Tribune/Leader met with members of the Skyland board and current Fire Chief Ryan Cole. Board member Phil Shope said the reason the Skyland board members did not know anything about the two checks (the department also borrowed $125,000 from an employee) is because former Skyland Chief Presley was “…embarrassed to tell them.”
Board Treasurer Ned Fowler gave several reasons that the Skyland FD was in financial jeopardy. Fowler explained that Skyland’s cash reserve was depleted 10 years ago. He say’s that in 2015 and 2016, between the months of July and November, tax money didn’t come into Skyland until December and there was a shortfall of money. Both Fowler and Shope explained that during the shortfall former Chief Presley went to County Manager Wanda Greene and asked for $500,000 in 2015 and again in 2016 as an advance until the tax money came in. Greene advanced the money to Presley on behalf of the Skyland Fire Department both years and the money was repaid back to the county.
Greene retired July 1st 2017 and is currently under an FBI investigation for fraud according to recent documents released to news outlets. Presley explained that he went to current County Manager Mandy Stone for another $500,000 in 2017 and he was denied the money. Presley explained that Stone would not advance the money to him unless the county commissioners voted on it.
In an email from Chairman of the Buncombe County Commissioners Brownie Newman, Newman said, “I don’t think Wanda Greene ever disclosed this with the board. I believe the first time I was aware of this is when Mandy Stone notified the board after she became county manager.”
In regards to Skyland’s 2017 shortfall Presley said, “Again it’s entirely my fault. I walked up to the office and they said we have got to have some money for payroll. Mark, (Dillingham), was a standing there and he said I can help out and I said if you’ll do that that will be great and I headed down to my office to make more phone calls. In 10 minutes I had what I needed.”
Presley said, “I anticipated the way our money comes in. I anticipated in having it back in 30 days, but it was my fault. I just didn’t do it.”
The department paid back the $150,000 to Riceville and then took a $125,000 loan from an employee of the Skyland Department (mentioned above). Asked about the $125,000 check from Skyland employee Matt Gibson, who is a janitor at the department, Presley said, “Same deal. My fault again. I guess I looked at it as no different than loaning a department a half million dollar fire truck. I had to do it in the spur of the moment. I would rather do anything than somebody not get their paycheck on Friday.”
Like the $150,000 check from Riceville, the Skyland board members knew nothing about the $125,000 check according to sources close to the board. Board member Phil Shope said that Gibson will “receive interest on the $125,000 loan to the total of $10,000…It comes out to something like 8% interest”, said Shope.
In regards to Skyland’s money troubles, Presley said, “We had a 50% increase in our insurance. We had trucks breakdown. We had people go out sick. We had to replace them and it got us.” Presley said, “We asked and asked the county commissioners to raise the tax rate. They said nope not this year, not this year.”
CREDIT CUT OFF
Five sources close to the board say that Skyland credit cards were maxed out, gas cards sometimes didn’t work, and several months ago Advance Auto Parts cut the department’s credit off. The Tribune/Leader asked Presley if Skyland’s credit cards were ever maxed out? Dennis Presley said, “Yes sir! Yes sir! That’s how I pay the bills, but they’re all paid up now.”
Addressing the gas cards issue current Skyland Chief Cole said, “The cards were never cut off for non-payment. One of their employees keyed in the wrong number on the gas pump.” A source close to the board said, “They finally paid Advance Auto Parts.”
The Tribune/Leader called all other Buncombe County Fire Departments across the county and asked if they had ever had to get an advance from the county to pay bills or payroll. They all said no. One fire chief who wished to remain anonymous said, “We do with what we have got. We stay under our budget.”
Another fire chief that wished to remain anonymous said, “Fire trucks are expensive. If one breaks down, parts can cost anywhere up to $20,000. You just never know what could happen to put an entire department in financial straits. I can kind of understand why Dennis did what he did, but he should have told the board. He could have had an emergency meeting.”
A NEW BUILDING
Sources close to Skyland’s board say that Presley told them they would make money on a building he wanted to purchase located behind the fire department. So in May 2016 the department purchased the property for $650,000. Sources on the board say that the Asheville Police Department rents the right hand side of the building for $5,000 a month, but that the Asheville Police Department was already renting space at the main fire department for the same amount per month.
A board source said, “All Presley did was move them up to the new building for the same rate they were getting the lower building for. Now we’re not getting $5,000 out of the lower building. So we aren’t making any money.” The board source said, “If we can’t make payroll why are we buying a $650,000 building?”
The Tribune/Leader asked that question to Presley and he said, “She, (the lady selling the building), wanted $1.2 million for that building and the board authorized $650,000. She gifted us $250,000. So hey! Somebody gave us a quarter of a million dollars and it actually appraised for $1.4 million and we paid $650,000. Now there were questions of why we spent the money. I couldn’t have done it without refinancing a truck. We refinanced the building and the truck and drew the payment out and actually lowered our payment for 15 years. Hey! Saved a little money and bought a building. So we refinanced the new truck and put that building in it and lowered the payment by about $1,000.”
A source close to the board said, “The building is nothing but a country club for Presley’s wife and daughter.” The Tribune/Leader has confirmed that Presley’s wife and daughter are the bookkeepers for the Skyland Fire Department. Their daughter is also the bookkeeper for the Riceville and the Enka Fire Departments. The board source said, “If there was money to renovate the building, grade the property, install a dog run, and buy workout equipment for bookkeepers why don’t we have money to pay firefighters?”
Another source close to the board said, “It’s a total mismanagement of money when the bookkeeper gets their own workout room, showering facility, and a fenced in lot for their dog and because of lack of money the firefighters lose a man on a fire truck and Skyland loses an ambulance. You tell me. Where is $6 million a year going?”
In an email Chief Cole said, “In regards to staffing of apparatus, for efficient operations, studies have shown that four people on a fire truck provides the most efficient operations and has always been a long-term goal of Skyland and will continue to be a long-term goal of Skyland. As with most departments the number of personnel you can provide is based on what your budget will allow, and staffing of fire trucks in the county range from one person to four people based on the funding, call volume, and need for service.”
At the November 14th meeting Chief Cole closed by saying, “I want the best insurance for our employees. We have a plan to achieve financial success and stability and the public will get the highest of services.”