Bryson City is short a fire chief after the town’s board voted unanimously to fire Joey Hughes at a special called meeting last Friday.
Hughes was sacked as the result of a police investigation into the fire department that’s still ongoing. Hughes could not be reached for comment by presstime.
The department was shut down on Monday so investigators could inventory the place, and state investigators were making their way to Bryson City to participate in the audit. Though police and town officials have declined to comment on the continuing investigation, search warrants show that the probe appears to center around two bank accounts held by the fire department.
Two search warrants were filed and executed more than a month ago to look into accounts belonging to the Bryson City Fire Department’s Ladies Auxiliary and a group called Friends of the Firemen.
According to Town Manager Larry Callicutt, those are funds handled directly by the department, not through the town board like the fire department’s regular budget.
But it seems there are questions about whether that is even legal. The department is a municipal, all-volunteer fire department. So while most independent fire departments would have their own governing board, in Bryson City that duty falls to the elected town board.
So is having separate pots of cash that aren’t under town control allowed? Callicutt said he wasn’t sure, and town attorney Fred Moody couldn’t be reached for comment on this story.
Since the bank accounts aren’t public record, and the active investigation is keeping officials mum on its focus, it’s not clear exactly what about the accounts is in question, or why it warranted Hughes’ removal.
Also unclear is precisely how much money is in those two accounts, where the money comes from or who controls them. Like many all-volunteer squads, in the past the department has held fundraisers to supplement its budget, though Callicutt said the town has before requested that those fundraisers be stopped.
Last year, the town budgeted $90,000 to the fire department, not including insurance.
This year, it’s getting just over $78,000, which also doesn’t count insurance or the water and sewer the town provides to the department. All in all, Callicutt expects the total to be around $80,000 this year.
Of the two accounts in question, only the Bryson City Fire Department Auxiliary is registered as a non-profit. It’s director is listed as Cylena Hughes, the former fire chief’s wife. That means any donations made to the Friends of Firemen account would not be tax deductible.
The investigation won’t hamper fire coverage, said city officials, and Swain County Fire Marshall Erwin Winchester has agreed to fill the gap as chief in the interim until a new chief is named.