Fire department-trustee case awaiting ruling

A ruling affecting the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department and Van Buren Township taxpayers’ money could be up to five weeks away.

After hearing about an hour of arguments from lawyers for the fire department and the trustee Nov. 2, Brown Circuit Judge Judith Stewart gave them three weeks to file any additional paperwork, and said she would rule within three weeks after those documents are received.

Stewart could issue summary judgment, laying out the rights and responsibilities of each party, as the fire department has requested; set the case for a jury trial; or do a combination of both.

At issue is whether or not the fire department is due thousands of dollars it has not received from the trustee through its fire protection contract; and whether or not the fire department is “solely responsible for its operations,” said fire department attorney John P. Cook.

Cook also wants the court to weigh in on what documents the fire department has to provide to the trustee and her advisory board.

The trustee has asked for the complete financial reports of the fire department, including money firefighters have raised. Fire department board members, testifying in depositions, said they decided as a group in 2014 to stop reporting on fundraiser money.

After not receiving documents, the trustee cut off payment to the fire department in the fall of 2014, and the department has been existing on fundraisers and donations since then.

Peter Campbell King, attorney for Trustee Vicki Payne and the township advisory board, argued that summary judgment is not appropriate in this case because there are other issues that deserve closer scrutiny.

Among the arguments he raised is that the fire department was not doing its job properly. He noted at least 15 calls for help that went unanswered between January 2015 and September 2016, incomplete training records and an understaffed department.

“How many calls do we allow to go unanswered before the township must act?” King asked.

Cook called that argument a “red herring” to distract attention from the core issues of the case.