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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Pender lawsuit against Shiloh-Columbia FD alleges financial misconduct, nepotism

A photo of Shiloh-Columbia Volunteer Fire Department from Pender County’s complaint.

PENDER — Pender County filed a lawsuit against the Shiloh-Columbia Volunteer Fire Department last week, accusing it of violating numerous regulations related to fire protection services and the failure to provide minimum performance standards.

“There was an informal effort to get Shiloh to improve their performance,” attorney Patrick Buffkin, who is representing Pender in the case, told Port City Daily. “Things have only gotten worse.”

The department was investigated two years ago, after former fire marshal Mark Haraway filed an official complaint. It alleged Shiloh-Columbia dispatched a vehicle outside its district, allowed minors to work in violation of state regulations, and paid employees with gift cards to avoid taxation. It also recommended a fire marshal’s office inspection due to concerns that staff — including fire chief William Rossell and members of his family — used the station as a permanent residence.

The defendants in Pender’s suit include Shiloh-Columbia Volunteer Fire Department, Rossell, and president of the board of directors, Fred Simpson. Rossell, who’s been with the department for more than 20 years, told Port City Daily he had “no comment at this time.”

Pender’s lawsuit includes a litany of similar negligent accusations from Haraway’s complaint, such as Shiloh-Columbia Volunteer Fire Department’s failure to:

  • Provide staff with adequate training and certifications
  • Obtain and deploy appropriate fire protection and suppression equipment
  • Maintain a properly functioning vehicle
  • Appropriately cooperate with other fire departments in the rendering of mutual aid
  • Ensure staff are wearing required protective equipment and allowing staff to engage in activities they are not adequately trained to perform

Additionally, Pender accuses Shiloh-Columbia of financial misconduct and calls for the transfer of ownership of the defendant’s assets acquired with county funds to the plaintiff. It cites the amount of county funds misused by the department as “greater than $25,000.” Buffkin said that figure is the jurisdictional threshold for security court. He anticipates a more precise number will be established over the course of the litigation.

“When you think about the building, the land, the fire equipment that’s in the firehouse, it piles up rather quickly,” Buffkin said.

Pender’s complaint adds that Shiloh-Columbia failed to comply with financial reporting requirements mandated by its fire contract with the county. Buffkin said information isn’t regularly provided.

“And they don’t give us the reports that they should be giving us,” he said. “They don’t keep their corporate records up to date.”

In her affidavit, Pender fire marshal Amy Burton states the county’s finance office found Shiloh-Columbia only submits annually a basic budget proposal. Burton charges the defendant resisted Pender County staff’s past efforts to gain insight into its finances and Pender’s finance office determined approximately 88% of Shiloh-Columbia’s annual revenue is provided through public funds.

Buffkin told PCD the 2023-2024 proposed budget calls for $323,793 in total revenues at Shiloh-Columbia. 

“$134,069 is fire district tax money and another $150,000 is county general fund money,” he said. “The remainder includes  miscellaneous income, reserves, and a state matching grant.”

The FY2021-2022 and FY2022-2023 Pender County budgets cite $125,000 in annual general fund contributions to Shiloh-Columbia.

Shiloh-Columbia’s corporate filings with the North Carolina Secretary of State list a mailing address and registered office — but the two addresses are a private residence and a vacant lot. According to her affidavit, Burton found Shiloh-Columbia’s registered agent has not been updated since 1994 and is a person she has no knowledge of ever being involved with the department.

The IRS revoked Shiloh-Columbia’s nonprofit status from 2010-2023, of which Buffkin was unfamiliar with the reasoning.

Rossell is also accused of nepotistic hiring practices in the lawsuit. Buffkin said Shiloh-Columbia had five or six salaried employees, all of whom were Rossell’s family members.

The complaint also accuses staff of taking permanent residence at the fire station and using department vehicles for personal transportation. Buffkin said Shiloh-Columbia staff’s inappropriate use of department property — including the failure to maintain a properly functioning vehicle with 1,000 or more gallons of water — is “more or less common knowledge in the fire community.”

“[N]umerous times, Shiloh has been unavailable to respond immediately to calls because their truck was empty,” Buffkin said. “Or they responded to a call and had to refill the truck before they could appear at the scene.”

Concerns with Shiloh-Columbia began after former fire marshal Haraway investigated the department in late 2021 to early 2022. His March 2022 complaint identified several problems, including staff residence at the fire station. 

“Shiloh continues to maintain they are only staying at the station, to provide full-time coverage, however their full-time personnel consist of the entire Rossell family,” Haraway wrote. “William told Commissioner [Jackie] Newton that the family was living at the station because they had not yet remediated past storm damage at their homes.”

Harraway’s allegations of Shiloh-Columbia’s negligence were corroborated by a report from Harrells Volunteer Fire Department, located in neighboring Sampson County. In incidents on March 22, 2022 t in Ivanhoe and Sept. 10, 2023 in an unspecified region in Harrells’ district, Harrell’s fire chief Robert Burley said multiple Shiloh-Columbia personnel were unequipped with protection gear and unable to assist fighting the fires.

“I would like to point out that this department is a safety risk to our community and to all the taxpayers in which it responds to,” Burley wrote.

Burton stated Haraway’s complaint led to Pender officials attempting to meet with Shiloh-Columbia in 2022 to correct its performance, but the defendant’s performance only further deteriorated throughout the year. 

Port City Daily reached out to Pender County for the lawsuit’s court date and will update upon response.


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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