Van Buren fire-trustee battle back in court today

The legal battle between the Van Buren Township trustee and Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department could be answered with a judge’s ruling this month — or it could proceed to a trial instead.

The fire department’s attorney has asked, among other things, that Judge Judith Stewart rule on whether the department is entitled to be paid through its fire protection contract with the trustee.

The volunteer fire department has not received any of the taxpayer money the contract says it is due since the fall of 2014.

Van Buren Township Trustee Vicki Payne and her advisory board have argued that the department is in breach of contract for failing to provide documentation on firefighter training and coverage and the department’s complete financial information.

In April 2015, the fire department sued Payne and her board. Among the arguments was that the township is in breach of contract for nonpayment.

Four court hearings have followed. More than 1,000 pages of court documents have been filed. Both sides have expressed frustration and fatigue, and attorney bills are mounting.

But so far, no agreement has been reached on the role the township advisory board should play, if any, in the operations of the fire department, and what is owed to whom.

Treading water

A sign on October weekends in front of the fire station has been advertising sandwiches and dinners for sale.Fundraisers and thousands of dollars donated by fire board members are what’s been keeping the department afloat.

By the department’s calculations, it is owed at least $30,000 in unpaid contract money.

At the end of 2015, the township’s financial report showed $33,703.46 sitting in the firefighting fund and another $163,995.28 in the cumulative fire fund for equipment and buildings — and no disbursements to anyone from either.

Fire board member Jane Donaldson says it’s wrong for the township to be taxing property owners for fire protection and not passing that money to the fire department. Then, firefighters are asking those same taxpayers to support them through fundraisers, she said.

Board member Heather Stafford said the department has found enough to cover utilities, gas and insurance — policies that should have been paid by the trustee, she said.

“We are close to running out of money, unless money comes in from other places that we have been working on,” she said.

Donaldson said it may get to the point where the station would have to close. Money would be the only reason that would happen. “It’s not because the fellas don’t want to work,” she said.

She said the volunteers have increased their training, made minor improvements to the truck bays and redone their computer system to make report-writing more efficient and legible.

Court documents filed on behalf of the fire department argue that it shouldn’t matter whether Payne is getting all the documents she’s asking for, which include an accounting of all fundraising money and “run reports” of where firefighters are going on calls. The contract still obligates the township to pay the fire department regardless, the department’s attorney says.

Lack of money is also hurting the department’s ability to draw in the community, Donaldson said. Good ideas have been proposed, but firefighters can’t even do fire prevention education like they used to because of lack of money, she said.

With Crouch’s Market gone, there’s no real hub to the Van Buren community, and the fire department could be that place, said Donaldson and fellow board member Bonnie Closey.

“We’re broke,” Donaldson said. “And we have no public backing because nobody knows anything (about what’s going on).”

“Sometimes I get where I want to throw in the towel, but I feel like what we have done is good,” Closey said about the fire department’s work over recent years. “People need to see that they have people fighting for them.”

A history of tension

Payne took office as trustee in 2011 after defeating 26-year incumbent Nettie Walls.

Walls had had several run-ins with the fire department. Firefighters ran into opposition when trying to spend money on equipment, and in 2007, she threatened to sign a contract with Southwest Volunteer Fire Department in Bartholomew County instead of Van Buren.

In a January 2007 story in the Brown County Democrat, Walls said she was responsible to the township to go with the best agency for fire protection, and she thought Southwest was it; they had more certified firefighters. Also, she said she’d had problems getting documentation she’d asked for from the Van Buren department.

The fire chief at the time, Cindy Suits, had run against Walls for trustee and lost, the story said.

Walls’ last contract debate was around the time when current Chief John Ward stepped up to volunteer.

Payne was on the township advisory board then, and continued to serve until she defeated Walls in the 2010 election.

Since 2010, Payne had worked alongside firefighters to help the fire department secure a $400,000 grant from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs to build the current fire station, across the street from Van Buren Elementary. For decades, it had been housed in a pole barn on Hamilton Creek Road with minimal indoor plumbing and no flush toilet.

By the time the new station was ready to move into in the fall of 2014, the relationship between the fire board and advisory board had become strained. The township stopped paying fire contract money because Payne’s requests for personnel and financial records hadn’t been fulfilled in the manner she had asked, and she believed she needed them in case the township was audited.

Walls had been audited before Payne took office and the state found significant irregularities in the way taxpayer money was spent — though not money from fire department fundraisers. Walls ended up pleading the case down to a misdemeanor.

Donaldson and Closey said Payne asked them to serve on the fire board.

Stafford, a fire board member since January 2013, filed to run against Payne for trustee in 2014. Payne retained her job after an election season marked by tense exchanges in public meetings and on social media.

Court documents say that Payne met with fire department representatives in January 2015 and some hurt feelings were bought up over Facebook posts, but they agreed to try to work things out.

Three months later, the fire department sued Payne and the advisory board, alleging, among other things, that township leaders had been “meddling in the affairs of the department,” which they said isn’t allowed in the fire contract.

Last August, Stewart ordered both sides to try to work through their differences with a professional mediator.

Those talks failed, and mediator fees were added to the bills.

Adequate protection?

At a September hearing, the township raised another argument in court which is likely to be discussed at the next hearing Nov. 2: that Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department also breached its contract by “placing itself in a position where it is unable to perform its contractual obligations, or by failing to perform its contractural obligations.”

The seven-year fire protection contract that the fire board, fire chief, Payne and advisory board members signed in December 2012 requires the department, among other things, to “so far as reasonably possible, answer all calls in due and diligent manner made for fire and rescue protection within the limits of the township,” and “to the best of its ability, make all reasonable efforts to give the best protection possible.”

The township’s attorney questioned professional firefighter David W. Carlson of the Beech Grove Fire Department.

His opinion was that Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department’s roster in 2015 — with four firefighters on it — was inadequate to staff a fire department and to provide “safe and adequate fire suppression services to the citizens of the township.” It was also a concern that not all firefighters were certified, Carlson said.

In addition, the township’s lawyer noted eight times that no Van Buren firefighter responded to a call for help between Jan. 1, 2015, and May 14, 2016, and that for about 20 percent of runs in that period, only one person — Chief Ward — responded, in his personal vehicle.

Carlson said attacking a typical residential fire requires 14 firefighters. At minimum, for every two that go in, two more should be available outside to back them up, he said, citing National Fire Protection Association Standards.

Ward testified that adequate staffing is available through mutual aid agreements with other departments, which the NFPA accepts.

He said the department strives to meet NFPA standards, but it’s not bound by them — and because of the nature of volunteer fire departments, it’s difficult for any volunteer department, with limited personnel, old equipment and small budgets, to comply with all of them.

Closey and Donaldson said they trust their chief’s knowledge and appreciate his passion for a volunteer job.

“Just because defendants are unhappy with the way the department is run, or would do things differently, does not mean the volunteer fire department is not adequately supervised,” the fire department’s attorney argued, noting that the department is aware of no loss suffered by the township board or township residents because of their service.

“Indeed, if the department is able to respond to more than 98 percent of calls made for services, it must be supervising its affairs in an acceptable manner,” the court document said.

Township’s position

Payne said in April that she also thinks it’s wrong to use taxpayer money for a lawsuit, but she can’t let the lawsuit go unanswered, and she needs more information than what she is getting before paying out the contract.

Fire department board Treasurer Terry Edmonds testified that in 2014, the entire fire board decided to change the financial reporting relationship to the trustee. At that time, he said that he started deleting information about money the department received by other means than through the contract.

This was a departure from the “standard and practice” used for decades, court documents say.

Payne said she wasn’t aware why the reporting changed or who changed it until she read Edmonds’ deposition.

The fire contract both parties signed says that the department “shall make available, to the trustee and advisory board, upon request and at least annually, the complete financial records of the volunteer fire department.”

When asked why she thinks it’s important to continue the fight, Payne said she thought she had probably said too much already.

When asked last week if there was any way she could work with the current fire department and board, Payne said she didn’t think she should comment.

She also wouldn’t comment on Donaldson’s assertion that Payne had asked other fire departments to contract with Van Buren Township.

Payne said the fire department sent a letter to her and the advisory board over the summer with a proposed compromise, and she and her board sent one back. “We rejected theirs and they rejected ours. There was no movement, no discussion, no real compromise,” she said.

Could there ever be one? “Sure,” she said. “Not today.”

“I really don’t know (what it would take) either, but it’s long overdue,” she said.

“The court will have its day, and hopefully it will work out for our township.”

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.