Aiken County still waiting for results of investigation into how Wagener fire fees were spent

May 8—Aiken County's investigation into how fire fees were spent in the district served by the Wagener Fire Department still hasn't been completed.

"We've kind of had to start all over again," Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian told the Aiken Standard last week, approximately two years after County Council's Judicial and Public Safety Committee voted unanimously to authorize him to find an auditor to provide assistance.

Elliott Davis, an accounting firm that was conducting the financial review, "notified us that they were no longer going to be doing governmental auditing in February or March," Killian said.

The company also had conducted the county's annual audit.

Prior to then, Elliott Davis "had received some documentation from the Town of Wagener, but they had asked for some more and still hadn't gotten it," Killian said.

The county has hired Mauldin & Jenkins as its new auditor, and the firm also will handle the Wagener matter.

"They (Mauldin & Jenkins) sent the AUP (an agreed-upon procedures document) to Wagener and it finally was signed April 19," Killian said.

Mauldin & Jenkins' fee for the work will be "$12,000-$15,000," according to Killian.

In Aiken County, volunteer fire departments such as the one in Wagener assess fire fees in their districts. The county collects the fees from taxpayers and then distributes them to the appropriate recipients.

The fire fees for the Wagener district go to the Town of Wagener first and then are given to the fire department because it is a "town department," Killian told the Aiken Standard last year.

A contract between the county, the Town of Wagener and the Wagener Fire Department specifies how the fire fees should be spent.

Because of concerns about how the fees were used in the Wagener fire district, County Council unanimously approved a resolution in February 2021 that directed Killian and his staff to request records and other information from the town and its fire department.

In 2020, disagreements between Wagener officials and Wagener Fire Department leaders led to the suspensions and subsequent dismissals of Fire Chief Mark Redd and Assistant Fire Chief George Day.

There were allegations from people involved in the controversies that fire fees had been misappropriated.

The funds are supposed to be used by a fire department for operational expenses such as equipment purchases, utilities, fuel for vehicles and firefighting supplies.

In April 2021, Killian recommended to the Judicial and Public Safety Committee that an accounting firm be hired so that its representatives could "go and sit down" with town and fire department representatives in Wagener "to go through their records."

Killian said neither the county nor Wagener had the staff needed to complete the task without some guidance.

That's when the committee authorized Killian to hire an auditor.

The Aiken Standard reported in August 2021, that Elliott Davis would be helping with the investigation, but the plans for the inquiry stalled.

Elliott Davis was busy and had staffing issues.

"We also looked for another firm ... and we were having trouble finding somebody that felt like they had the time to do it," Killian said. "Then Elliott Davis agreed they could do it once they got staffed back up."

Killian told the Aiken Standard in June 2022 that a request for information had been sent to the Town of Wagener and the fire department.

Being sought, he said, were monthly fire fees bank statements from Jan. 1, 2017 through Dec. 31, 2021. Also requested was the "disbursement register" for fire fees from the same time period, Killian said.

Originally, the county planned for the investigation to focus on only a couple of years of records, but Killian told the Aiken Standard that Wagener Mayor Mike Miller asked the county "to go back" and examine earlier documents.