The Ashe County Board of Commissioners could start requiring random audits of county volunteer fire departments, following a discussion of the proposed budget on Monday, June 2.
The discussion was initiated by the recent controversy over questions about the finances of the Todd Volunteer Fire Department. An investigation of the department concluded there was no wrongdoing.
The audits proposed would not be as comprehensive as those required by state statute for counties and municipalities, but according to Ashe County Manager Sam Yearick, could head off any rumors of financial impropriety at the county’s VFDs.
“If anything, these (reviews) will stop the rumors,” said Yearick.
According to the proposed budget, $24,000 has been included in the annual budget to audit the 12 departments. The budget would provide $2,000 for each department if all 12 are audited at the same time.
“We have it in the contract that we do have the right to audit,” Yearick said. ” We have not done it, but we have the right to do it.”
Yearick said he thought it would be a 50 percent chance of the commissioners doing the audits, but said they did not take the money out of the budget.
“I think it’s one of those things…eventually we will (have to do) it,” he said. “Now, whether this is the year or next year or five years from now, it will happen.”
The commissioners had several ideas about how to perform the random audits.
Several methods of deciding which department would be audited and when were discussed by the commissioners. Those included a random selection process, with a random number of department selected, Another idea proposed was having all the departments audited over one year or having the audits prepared over two years.
“Sometime along the line, you have to put these controls in,” Yearick said. “It’s easier to put this stuff in on the front side then it is on the backside, once it gets going.”
Yearick said as the county continues the grow, the fire departments will as well, and with that, comes larger budgets the departments will have to handle.
There are 12 volunteer fire departments which serve Ashe County. Of those two, Deep Gap and Todd are already audited by Watauga County.
Those minimum-standard audits look at monies provided by both Ashe and Watauga counties.
Yearick said the audits would be done more as reviews, because full audits would be too expensive.
While no official decision has been made on whether or not to audit the departments, Yearick said it could be done without a motion because it’s already part of the contract agreement between Ashe County and the VFDs.
“We just put a little bit of money in there in case (the commissioners) wanted to go that direction,” he said.
In the budget discussions, Commissioner William Sands said he wasn’t sure if auditing the fire departments should be something done every year.
Commissioner Gary Roark said he was fine with doing the audit to help stop rumors of department spending.
“The fire departments have never been audited by the county that I know of,” Roark said. “We might do it one time to just show the people. A lot of people think we’re not doing anything about it.”
Commissioner Larry Rhodes asked if the departments were checked at random, and not all at once, would the county still need to budget $24,000.
“I’m not even sure the $24,000 would cover it,” Yearick said. “That was just an estimate, and it’s one of those things where eventually, we’ll go to this. I think review would be a better term for it, because at that level you’re not researching very much.”
Fire Service Districts
During the scheduled Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday, June 2, the commissioners approved establishing fire service districts for the Creston, Glendale Springs, Laurel Springs, Todd and Warrensville volunteer fire departments, as well as expanding the district for the Jefferson VFD.
Yearick said all of the county’s volunteer fire departments, except for the Fleetwood VFD, now have the fire service districts.
Wil Petty can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @WilPetty.