A lawsuit between the Van Buren Township trustee and advisory board and the Van Buren volunteer firefighters and fire board is proceeding to a jury trial — but not for another five to eight months.
After meeting with lawyers for the township and the fire department, Brown Circuit Judge Judith Stewart set the date for Tuesday, Nov. 14. That’s the first option on the court’s calendar, though Aug. 8 might become a possibility, the court file says.
The volunteer firefighters and the elected officials who contract with them for fire protection have been fighting in court since April 2015.
Problems have revolved around payment of fire protection contract money, release of financial records and firefighter response records, and the general involvement of the trustee’s office in fire department operations. The trustee’s office also has brought up concerns about inadequate staffing and certification for firefighters.
Stewart issued a summary judgment on some items just before Christmas but decided many of the arguments needed to be heard and decided on by a jury instead.
Those include whether or not either side breached the terms of the contract and who did it first, whether or not the fire department has a right to receive $21,000 not paid from the 2014 and 2015 contract years, and the degree to which the trustee and advisory board have a right to be involved in how the fire department is run and the building is used.
Fundraisers and donations are the only way the all-volunteer fire department has been paying its bills since the fall of 2014. That’s when Van Buren Township Trustee Vicki Payne and the advisory board started withholding contract money because the fire department board refused to hand over its “complete financial records” as the seven-year contract states.
Earlier in 2014, the fire board had begun only releasing records pertaining to the township tax money that comes from the contract, according to court depositions.
Court documents filed over the past several months and a petition circulated in November have warned that without contract money, the station could be in danger of shutting down. The petition said closure could happen in February.
Chief John Ward said in early February that the department is staying open.
He said firefighters talked at the end of the year about whether they wanted to keep going, and they decided that quitting would have too many negative consequences for township residents and the county.
They’re now redoubling their fundraising efforts, Ward said. He said a few people have given larger amounts than normal over the winter to cover insurance and other expenses. The department also got a restaurant permit so it could continue selling $5 lunches out of the station across from Van Buren Elementary, he said.
“We’re not going to focus on the lawsuit; we’re going to focus on staying positive,” Ward said.
After Stewart released her partial judgment in December, Van Buren Township Advisory Board member Ben Phillips said “all options are on the table” when asked what the board would do next.He likened the advisory board and fire board’s relationship to an employer dealing with an employee who refused to perform his job duties, and in a work relationship, that would be grounds for termination, he said.
In early February, when asked if the board had considered contracting with another fire station instead, Phillips said that’s not clear yet; it depends on what happens with the lawsuit. He said if the township were to hire another department, it might also be liable to pay out the current contract with Van Buren Fire which is in place through 2019, and “we’re not going to risk putting taxpayers in a bind like that.”
“The way the court situation is right now, we don’t consider them to be our fire department,” Phillips said. “They consider themselves our fire department, so they said they’re still going to make runs.”
Phillips — as well as Payne, fire board members and Ward — are aware of how much the court fight is likely to cost when it’s over, and none of them are happy about it. Phillips estimated $100,000 would be spent between both sides by the time the trial rolls around.
“Right now, we don’t have any choices,” Phillips said. “They sued us. We didn’t sue them.
“It would have been done and over with in the last quarter of 2014 if they would have just given us the records.”
Stewart’s December ruling said that the department does have to make its complete financial records available to the trustee’s office, but a jury will have to decide what “make available” means — whether it’s making hard copies as the practice used to be or allowing them to inspect originals.
Phillips said since the ruling, the fire department has “offered something on records,” but since the lawsuit is still going forward to trial, “we’re not responding to anything they’re giving us.”
Whether or not the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department keeps operating as a fire department has an impact on the county as a whole, and not just because of fire protection.When the firefighters, Payne and other volunteers succeeded in October 2012 at getting a $400,000 grant to build the Van Buren fire station, the Brown County Commissioners were listed as the grant recipient, with the fire department as the subrecipient.
The grant agreement with the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs says the building must remain a fire station for five years.
Commissioner Diana Biddle said there’s been some concern over the life of this dispute about the county’s liability to that grant if the station folds.
She said it’s even more complex because ownership of the land is in the name of the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department, which is its own entity separate from township government.
The county commissioners are not a party to the lawsuit, but Biddle said they will be talking soon about whether or not to withhold additional money the fire department could have coming to it.
Earlier this year the county was given about $87,000 from the sale of timber cut on public land in Brown County. Most years, the commissioners decide to give 50 percent of that to local fire departments, split among the six of them.
Biddle said the commissioners will have to decide if they want to give Van Buren the amount every fire department may be getting — about $7,000 — or if they will only give the minimum required by law — $1,000 — and hold the rest back until the department is following its agreement with the trustee.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought it would go this far,” Ward said about the court case, which will have been fought for two years in April.
No matter which way the jury decides, “there is no true winner in this mess,” he said.