A judge has dismissed part of the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department’s contract dispute against the Van Buren Township trustee and advisory board.
But that doesn’t mean the yearlong legal battle will end or that anything has been resolved.
Six days after the ruling, the fire department filed an amended lawsuit March 28 seeking clarification and direction about what the fire protection contract requires of each party.
It also warned that the department’s “cash on hand” would run out in four to five weeks, leaving firefighters unable to pay for fuel.
“Such an outcome will pose a significant risk to the safety of the residents of Van Buren Township,” the filing says.
Trustee Vicki Payne and the advisory board stopped paying contract money at the end of 2014, saying that the fire department was in breach of contract for not providing complete financial records.
Fire department board President Rick Good declined to comment last week on the relationship between the entities.
Payne said she had hoped Judge Judith Stewart would dismiss the whole lawsuit from last year.
“Now, I don’t know,” she said about the path forward.
On April 29, 2015, the fire department sued the trustee and her advisory board, alleging that the township had breached the fire protection contract in a variety of ways.The department asked the court to make Payne pay the department what it is owed — $5,000 from the 2014 contract and at least $16,000 for 2015 — and to set up a schedule for future payments.
It also wanted the court to tell Payne that she couldn’t intervene in the operations of the fire department; that the township had to pay for health and disability insurance for firefighters; and that the township had to give firefighters $200 each year for clothing and automobile wear-and-tear, plus “past due” allowances.
Stewart ruled March 22 that the court doesn’t have the authority to determine a payment schedule. That falls within the discretionary functions of another elected official, she said.
In regard to the trustee “meddling” in the fire department’s affairs, Stewart dismissed the complaint because it was too broad but said the department could amend it with more specifics.
That’s what it did March 28.
The amendment says Payne and the township advisory board don’t have the right to question the qualifications of the firefighters or tell them how to modify or use the fire station, because the contract says “the fire department shall, at all times, be solely responsible for the supervision of the affairs of the department” and “shall not delegate or permit interference with that supervision by any other person or entity.”
The fire department wants the court to determine whether Payne and the advisory board violated that contract by questioning the firefighters’ or fire board’s actions, such as what kind of heating source to install in the fire station, built in 2014.
They also want a ruling on whether the fire department has to disclose how much has been made from fundraisers or donations and how that money has been spent.
The contract, signed in 2012 to cover seven years, says the department must make its “complete financial records” available to the trustee and advisory board at least annually and upon request.
But the department’s lawyer says that isn’t practical if it means every check, deposit slip, invoice, bank statement, ledger sheet, repair estimate and record of a donation.
In addition to the amended complaint, the parts of the original lawsuit that will proceed in court are determinations on whether the trustee has to immediately pay the past-due contract money and pay health insurance and other allowances; and whether the fire department can keep confidential the “personal identifiers” of the people it aids.
The trustee and her board have until April 18 to file a response to the complaint.
Stewart ruled March 22 that the fire department does have the right to file a claim for the township to cover its legal fees. Whether the township will have to pay them is yet to be determined.
Good declined to disclose how much the bill is so far.
‘We’re wasting it’
Payne said last week that spending township money on this dispute is “wrong.”
However, the township wasn’t the party to file the lawsuit, she said, and it has to answer the accusations.
She estimates the township’s legal bills at more than $25,000. They’re being paid from the tax-funded township general fund.
“It bothers me that we’re wasting it, actually, when we could be putting it to a useful (purpose),” she said.
The township’s end-of-year report for 2015 showed more than $33,000 in the firefighting fund — money that could go to the fire department to put gas in trucks and keep the lights on.
There was also more than $163,000 in the cumulative firefighting fund — money that could be spent on a new truck, hoses or protective gear for firefighters.
But until the fire department produces the financial records Payne believes she needs, she said she’s not releasing any of it.
Under former trustee Nettie Walls, Van Buren Township was written up by the Indiana State Board of Accounts for not showing enough reason for payments of township funds, such as receipts, invoices and other public records.
“Payments without supporting documentation may be the personal obligation of the responsible official or employee,” the Van Buren audit from 2010 said, citing the Accounting and Uniform Compliance Guidelines Manual for Townships.
At a fire department meeting in October, firefighters displayed a whiteboard showing $5,642.36 from fundraisers and $7,196.48 in donations but $20,168.55 worth of expenses.
Payne, who attended that meeting, said that’s the most information she’d received in about a year.
She said she hasn’t been attending fire department meetings because she doesn’t feel welcome and doesn’t get anything out of it.
She used to get treasurer’s reports on paper monthly, then quarterly, and then they stopped, she said.
In its amended lawsuit, the fire department said it interprets the part in the contract about making complete financial records available to mean that it only has to provide access to records and doesn’t have to prepare reports or provide copies.
One of the clarifications the department is asking of the court is to explain whether it has to provide financial reports, and, if so, what they must contain.
“I’m not trying to meddle in their affairs,” Payne said. “I’m just trying to get my records right so I can show I have the authority to pay them.”
Firefighters and fire board members have been reaching into their own pockets to pay the bills while their contract money is tied up because of the court fight. They’ve also been conducting fundraisers.
“We’re not asking for them (township residents) to support us outside of regular donations,” Good said of fish fries, chicken dinners and a donation letter.
Those donations will not go toward legal expenses, he added.
“Residents from the township and people out of town, they’ve been very supporting of the fire department,” he said.
He said the department’s main concern in its lawsuit is getting the financial questions resolved and the contract money flowing again.
Last fall, Stewart ordered the parties to try mediation, but after 10 hours of talking, that process failed.
“We tried several things to get this resolved months ago. We didn’t really get any cooperation. We tried to think of every avenue possible,” Good said.
Suing the trustee was their only choice, he said.
As to what might prompt a reconciliation, “I don’t know. I don’t know,” Good said.
“We’re just waiting, hopefully, get some funds to keep the doors open.”