Skyland – Financial times are good for the Skyland Fire Department now, but they haven’t always been so. Just about four years ago, Skyland was struggling to meet payroll.
That’s when Skyland’s troubles surfaced into the news. In the fall of 2017, the Tribune broke the story that Skyland had borrowed from the Riceville Fire Department $150,000 to make the department’s payroll. A highly unusual move that was quickly repaid after the Tribune broke the story.
After several news tips that the Skyland Fire Department was sitting on millions of dollars in their bank account, the Tribune thought an update in the financial condition of Skyland might be in order.
Asked if the department’s financial condition had improved, the Skyland Fire Department Board Chairman Scott Hart told the Tribune, “It absolutely has. We’ve got probably over $5 million in the bank right at the moment. Yes, sir, we’ve turned it around.”
Asked what he credits the turnaround to, Hart laughed and said, “Not spending money…we did some refinancing of our properties and that was a big, big help right there. And like I said we tightened up on our spending the last few years and gotten our finances to where they are now.”
Asked about any sale of property that might have helped, Hart said the department sold their administration building, which was part of the refinancing package. Asked if that was more than a million dollars, Hart said no but could not put a specific figure to the sale at the time of his conversation with the Tribune. According to Buncombe County GIS, the property was bought in 2016 by the Skyland Fire Department for $650,000 and sold in March of 2020 for $740,000 to Broad River Rehab, a physical therapy business.
The Tribune also contacted Scott Hare, the Skyland Fire Department Board’s Treasurer, to see if we could get a more exact figure of the account balance since 2017.
The Tribune spoke with and emailed Scott Hare, the broad’s treasurer, questions about the account balance.
On Monday (April 12th) Hare offered this response as to the reason the Tribune’s questions had not been answered, “My issue is I’ve been working and I haven’t had a chance to get by Skyland or talk to anybody there to help me out to get that information. I got ahold of our lady that does our HR stuff, and I forwarded the email this morning, and she is going to work on that for me this afternoon.”
On Sunday (April 18th), Hare called to say he was waiting for the department’s lawyer to clear the release of the information the Tribune asked for, saying, “I know that [answer] whenever the figures are public. I’m just making sure we get what we need.”
A review on the department’s website for an annual report was conducted. The last annual report was posted for 2018/19 and the budget only included what was spent over the year and not how much money was taken in or what the sources of income are for the department.
In the past, it was high dollar shell game
According to a 2017 Tribune article, the Skyland Fire Department Division Chief Mark Dillingham, who was also listed as sitting on the Riceville Fire Department Board, arranged the “loan” of $150,000 to Skyland.
When contacted by the Tribune about the money, he told the newspaper, “I’m at Skyland. This is on my job. That’s the Riceville business, so I’m not going to talk about that at Skyland work. That’s crossing the line for me,” Dillingham says.
While the Skyland Fire Department no longer employs Dillingham, he is still on the board at the Riceville Fire Department, where he is also listed on their website as a firefighter/EMT.
After the newspaper’s 2017 story about the $150,000 broke, the money was quickly returned by Skyland to the Riceville, but the money shell games were not over as an employee of the fire department reportedly gave a check for $125,000 to the department. It was reported, at the time, that it was unclear if the check was a donation or a loan, but later on, it was revealed that a janitor at Skyland, Matt Gibson, loaned the money to the department at eight percent interest.
Former chief takes blame for money woes
On November 14th, 2017, the Tribune met with members of the Skyland board and then-current Fire Chief Ryan Cole. There 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 that former Skyland Chief Dennis Presley was “…embarrassed to tell them.”
Then-Skyland 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 says that in 2015 and 2016, between 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 then-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 both years, and the money was repaid to the county.
Greene, who has since pled guilty to corruption, retired July 1st, 2017, and was convicted in 2019 and sentenced to seven years and $100,000 in fines for her role in fraud and corruption charges. In 2017, Presley explained that he went to then-County Manager Mandy Stone for another $500,000 in 2017 and he was denied the money. Presley said that Stone would not advance the money to him unless the county commissioners voted on it. Presley shortly retired as Skyland Fire Chief. Stone was also convicted of corruption and sentenced to 33 months and a $15,000 fine.
In regards to Skyland’s 2017 shortfall, Presley said, “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 standing there, and he said I can help out and I said if you could 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 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 the 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 the Riceville, the Skyland board members said they 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 a truck 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.”
Is there another shoe about to fall?
While some questions may never be answered as to how Skyland Fire Department came to be in such financial straights as to having to borrow $150,000 from the Riceville Fire Department and take a $125,000 loan from a janitor of the department, other questions may arise.
When inquiring about the financial status of the Skyland department, Hart told the Tribune, “Nothing further to report. It’s still in the SBI and FBI hands. Whoever’s hands, I don’t really know who’s, but the department hasn’t had anything to address in quite a while.”
Hart went on to say, “I’m sure if anything comes out from either the state level or the federal level, I have no idea where they’re at with it, and I know they said they’ve been short-staffed with COVID hitting and everything else, it’s just pushed everything so far out. I have no clue on any of that. However, I can say that the fire department itself has complied with everything the state and SBI wanted…they have all the information. We’re not involved in it anymore, so from there, it’s at the state or higher level.”
Editor’s note: Articles from 2017 prepared by freelance reporter Chad Nesbitt contributed to this report.