Garner, N.C. — As state investigators probe the disappearance of nearly $400,000 from the Garner Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, Wake County officials are looking at tighter rules on money given to area fire departments and rescue squads.
Fire department officials informed Garner town leaders in January of the missing money, which was uncovered during an outside audit of the department's books from July 2008 to June 2009.
"My initial reaction was, 'This can't be true,'" Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said recently.
When the State Bureau of Investigation was called to start looking into the situation, Amy Moore, the administrative assistant who handled the fire department's books, abruptly resigned.
Moore, who worked for the department for a decade, hasn't spoken publicly about the case. Her husband, David Moore, is a detective with the Raleigh Police Department.
Williams said the lost money and the ongoing investigation haven't affected service by the fire department, but he and Wake County Manager David Cooke are following the SBI probe closely.
"The majority of the money that goes to the fire department is from Wake County or the town of Garner, so it's all taxpayer money," Cooke said.
Although the money is public, the volunteer department isn't. It's a nonprofit overseen by an independent board of directors, so it doesn't have to release details on what checks were written or to whom money was paid.
"It is very safe to say that we will be calling for some bookkeeping changes," Williams said.
Garner and county officials are given copies of annual audits of the fire department's finances. The audits point out that having a one-person accounting staff is a potential problem, but they note that the department's board is there to look over the books.
The board of the Garner department includes the son of the fire chief and five other volunteer firefighters with the department. Only two board members are not members of the fire department.
There's no indication that the board's close ties to the department contributed to the disappearance of the money, but Cooke said those conflicts of interest are troublesome.
The county gives $15.5 million a year to nonprofits like the Garner fire department, and he said the county might start requiring more bookkeeping and board member rules before turning over public money to those groups in the future.
"I think we have all the right or authority to put rules on that money," he said.
Steve Woodall, president of the Garner fire department's board, said the department already has taken steps to shore up its internal controls over its finances.
The board now looks at all canceled checks at each monthly meeting, and Garner's mayor pro tempore also sits in on the meetings, Woodall said. Bookkeeping for the department is temporarily being handled by the outside company that conducted the annual audits, and a new internal auditor is being brought in, he said.