Complaint prompts Beech Mountain rec center probe
by Kellen Moore
Part-time resident Larry Price reported to police in early June that his analysis of recreation department records showed that more than $140,000 was unaccounted for and that he believed the irregularity might be due to criminal activity.
Police Chief Jay Hefner said Wednesday that his department has found no evidence of financial wrongdoing so far, but he and town staff are pledging to give the matter a thorough review.
Despite the unconfirmed nature of the report, the issue of funding and the recreation center is compelling strong emotions from residents, who packed into Town Hall on Tuesday to share their thoughts at the regularly scheduled council meeting.
Some defended the center and its staff, while others went as far as to call for the closure of the center and the resignation of Town Council members.
"There's nothing here," Town Manager Randy Feierabend said in an interview Wednesday. "I honestly believe it, but I can't prove it. That's what the investigation will do."
Resident makes claims
Price, a former attorney and part-time resident of Beech Mountain, doesn't vote in Beech Mountain, but he and his wife have paid taxes there since they built their home 12 years ago.
Price said he began looking into the Buckeye Recreation Center in January in hopes of finding ways to cut costs in the town.
The 22,500-square-foot rec center, which opened in 2006, includes gyms, fitness equipment, indoor tennis and track and meeting rooms. The recreation department, including the center, its staff and programs, consumes about 15 percent of the town's general fund budget, Feierabend said.
Price said he reviewed more than 1,200 pages of documents over the course of several months and was confused by discrepancies in the town's audits and reports generated by the recreation committee.
Specifically, Price said he found differences in the number of passes issued and the amounts reported as revenue.
Price sent a letter to Feierabend in early May, outlining his claims and asking that the information be provided to Town Council members and included in meeting minutes. Minutes from the May meetings do not include his documents.
Dissatisfied by the response, Price requested to make a presentation to the Town Council at its meeting Tuesday about his findings and offer recommendations for several ways to save money.
Price was not permitted to give his presentation but was offered the standard, three-minute public comment opportunity.
He simultaneously forwarded his information to the Beech Mountain Police Department, which opened an investigation on June 5, according to the police report.
According to the police investigation report, Capt. Jerry Turbyfill first interviewed Town Council member Paul Piquet, whose wife sits on the recreation advisory committee.
"When asked his thoughts on the possibility of a large amount of money missing from the recreation department, he maintained that it was almost impossible, there were too many controls in place," the report states.
He also interviewed town finance officer Nancy Johnson, who said she did not see any evidence of significant money being stolen, lost or misappropriated, according to the report. She also said most people purchase rec center passes with credit cards or checks, which are easier to track.
Turbyfill also reviewed the 2009, 2010 and 2011 fiscal audits completed by the Bryce Holder CPA firm and found that they made no mention of abnormalities in the recreation department, the report states.
The Beech Mountain Police Department also contacted the State Bureau of Investigation to request its involvement in the matter, which was denied because the amount of money involved did not meet the SBI's threshold and because agents did not believe criminal wrongdoing had occurred, the police report states.
Hefner, the police chief, said Wednesday that the investigation was not focused on any particular person.
"At this point, we've not seen anything, but we're still looking into it," he said.
The investigation also included a conversation with Feierabend, the town manager, who elaborated on his views in an interview this week.
Feierabend said he believed the problems arose from a misunderstanding on how to read the records. For example, he said, if a family of five joined the recreation center, they would receive five passes, but the payment would be only $150 for one family pass.
If five individuals joined, the income would be $75 apiece for a total of $375, he said.
"It doesn't take much of that to have it really look funky," Feierabend said.
Daniel Scagnelli, parks and recreation director, said he had been told to direct all media questions to the town manager. But he indicated in his brief comments that he also believed nothing deceitful had occurred.
"There's a lot of misinformation and, I think, misinterpreted information as well," he said.
Feierabend acknowledged that Beech Mountain did face troubles about three years ago after it lost a longstanding finance officer and experienced a rapid turnover in staff.
But he said the town has had more stability since and steps have been taken to make the records more accountable and in line with auditors' wishes.
He chalked up the complaint to a resident who is "not a happy camper."
"He does not agree with everything that the town is doing, so he started his own investigation into our recreation department that he feels like we don't need, as I best understand it," Feierabend said.
Still, Feierabend pledged that the police would do a proper investigation and that the results would be taken to the district attorney if needed.
"If anything is wrong, you can believe we'll deal with it," he said.
Price has his doubts.
"The police and the manager, they're all buddies," he said. "Everybody's all friends."
He said he also thinks the issue is starting to pit part-time residents against full-time, voting residents.
"It's really fast beginning to become a serious problem of an 'us versus them,' which I never wanted to get involved in," Price said.
Hefner said he did not know when the investigation might be complete.
Matthew Hundley of The Avery Journal-Times contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage of Beech Mountain's budget that the recreation department consumes. The story has been corrected.