EXETER — As the investigation into missing funds at Exeter Borough Hose Company No. 1 continues, the new fire chief has put together a new department while he struggles to regain the public trust.
The fire company is trying to come back from a financial crisis caused by missing funds. Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis Friday said the investigation remains active.
Meanwhile, the fire company is trying to rebound from a $25,000 deficit by holding fundraising events aimed at raising money and restoring public confidence in Hose Co. No. 1.
Don Skursky has returned as fire chief after stepping away in 2000. Skursky served as fire chief from 1990 to 2000, but health issues forced him to step aside.
Skursky is faced with a financial crisis that includes out-of-date equipment, idled trucks and public concern.
Skursky said the fire company has 10 part-time drivers who are paid as needed on a per diem basis. He said there are about 18 volunteers who devote their time to the company that averages 350 to 400 runs per year.
Due to the financial woes, Skursky said the fire company no longer has phone service. Emergency calls go through Luzerne County 911, which then sends a dispatch alert to members.
Skursky said the water was disconnected at the fire company because the company couldn’t pay the bill. There is no computer service in the building, which is not insured. The brush truck and the rescue truck are out of service because there is no money to pay for repairs or to keep them in current inspection or for insurance.
“We started 2015 about $25,000 in the hole,” Skursky said. “We’re now about $12,000 in the hole. We have all new officers and board members.”
Skursky said his main job has been to restore credibility. Raising money has been difficult, he said, because the public has been reluctant to donate to the fire company because of the financial scandal.
The woman at the center of an expanding investigation into alleged embezzling at the Exeter Hose Company No. 1 is Stephanie McNeil — an admitted thief with a criminal history, including state benefits fraud.
One day after the McNeil, the former treasurer, told a Times Leader reporter earlier this year she expected to be vindicated once “two sides to the story” come out in a probe of missing fire company money, the McNeil was in court and she admitted to having a $552 spending spree with a debit card stolen from her wheelchair-bound mother-in-law.
As the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office tries to determine what happened to thousands of dollars of Exeter Hose Company funds, court documents reveal that McNeil was hit with a $14,000 restitution order in a benefits fraud case last year, only months before investigators say fire company cash went missing under her watch and its debts inexplicably mounted.
No charges have been filed in the fire company case, but search warrants focused heavily on McNeil and her actions prior to being voted out of office in November.
Exeter Hose Company No. 1 officials were warned about keeping better finances in an audit from 2013, but according to a second recent report, leaders did improve record keeping.
As of March, Skursky said all line officers were replaced at the fire company. He said when it was discovered that funds were missing, they called the district attorney’s office.
“Nobody knew how bad it was,” Skursky said, adding that between $20,000 and $100,000 could have been taken.
The investigation is hurting fundraising efforts, Skursky said. When he was chief in the 1990s, the annual mail drive would net an average of $20,000. The current mail drive has brought in just $5,000 so far, he said.
“We want the public to know that we have a system of checks and balances in place now,” Skursky said. “I don’t think, I know that people are reluctant to donate because they are afraid the money could be stolen.”
Skursky said he and the fire company are taking it one day at a a time. He said more fund raising events are planned and they have applied for state and federal grants. He said the borough council has helped as much as it can.
As he walked around the grounds, Skursky pointed to a pile of air packs that are out of date and need to be replaced. He said they are essential for firefighter safety. The fire truck is in good shape, Skursky said, noting that it still has about 10 years of viable service. A new fire truck costs about $500,000, he said.
The fire company owes $100,000 on two other trucks that are out of service, he said, and there’s a mortgage on the building. He said it costs about $2,000 to safely outfit a firefighter.
Skursky said the fire company will survive, largely because of the influx of younger members. But he said public support is critical to assuring the fire company stays open.
“We’re not just their firefighters,” Skursky said of the residents of Exeter. “We’re their neighbors.. We’re here to help, serve and protect our neighbors and we are asking for their help.”