Van Buren fire protection to be discussed at Thursday night meeting

PIKES PEAK — Van Buren Township leaders were expected to vote Thursday night on whether or not to sever ties with the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department, nearly three years into a contract dispute between them.

But a couple minutes before the public portion of the meeting was to start, the township board’s attorney said the board needed to continue talking about their pending litigation in executive session. He said the public meeting would be postponed to Monday, July 3 at 4 p.m. at the trustee’s house, 4748 E. Christianburg Road.

Van Buren Township Advisory Board member Ben Phillips said June 27 that the fire department board and township board reached a conditional agreement during mediation earlier this month.

He said the agreement was conditional because two township advisory board members were not present at mediation and any vote has to happen in a public meeting.

Fire board Secretary Heather Stafford said June 28 that they’ve been advised by legal counsel not to discuss the contents of the conditional agreement. She said they’re waiting to see how the township board votes. “It’s not a done deal,” she said.

Van Buren Township and Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department signed a seven-year contract at the end of 2012. It was to last until 2019, but certain parts of it have been in dispute for nearly three years.

If the current contract is severed, who would provide fire protection to Van Buren Township residents hasn’t been determined yet. Providing fire protection is one of the trustee’s duties by statute, but state law allows several methods for how that might be done.

On June 27, Van Buren Township Trustee Vicki Payne, her husband Steve Payne and Phillips asked the Southwest Bartholomew Volunteer Fire Department in Bartholomew County if it would cover Van Buren Township.

Southwest Chief Billy Koons said no.

His concerns included the distance, inability to communicate between the counties’ two different radio types, and how his firefighters would adequately cover his own and Van Buren’s residents. Southwest has 27 people on its roster, but like many volunteer fire departments, only about four are regularly available to respond because of other commitments, he said.

Two volunteer fire departments in Jackson County also said no, Vicki Payne told Southwest. But all have offered mutual aid, which they already offer when more manpower is needed at a scene.

Steve Payne said they’ve also been talking about starting a new fire department in Van Buren Township. He said he knows of people who are ready to volunteer if that’s they way they go.

But that can’t happen overnight, and the township needs to have protection if the current contract is terminated, Koons said.

Koons said the township could continue to contract with Van Buren Fire on a month-to-month basis, which would buy time to train new firefighter recruits while providing some protection.

Van Buren Fire Chief John Ward said his fire department would be willing and able to continue responding to emergencies even if they didn’t have a contract with any government entity.

If township leaders were to form a new fire department instead of using Van Buren Fire, how that new department would operate isn’t clear.

Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department owns the fire trucks and the land the station sits on, Stafford said.

The township doesn’t own the fire station, either. It was built with grant money from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, and it doesn’t become the property of the fire department until January 2020, Stafford said.

If Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department would cease to exist before January 2020, the fear is that the Brown County Commissioners could be liable for the $400,000 grant that built the fire station, since the commissioners were the grant recipient, Stafford said. She said the fire department wants to prevent that from happening.

Van Buren Fire sued Van Buren Township in April 2015 for a variety of reasons; among them was that the township was in breach of contract for nonpayment.

The township board has been withholding fire protection tax money since the fall of 2014 because the fire department would not make available its “complete financial records” as the contract says.

The fire department’s stance has been that it is a separate legal entity from the township, and it only has to report on the taxpayer money it receives.

Brown Circuit Court Judge Judith Stewart ruled in December that the fire department does have to release those records, but that “make available” was unclear, and if the parties wanted more clarification on what that meant and on other disputed facts — like whether or not the contract was breached and who breached it — they’d have to go to trial. That might not happen until November.

Township leaders also have asked for records showing how many firefighters the department has and what training they’ve completed so that Payne can prove her township has adequate fire protection and be in compliance with state law, she said.

Volunteer firefighters have been paying their bills through fundraisers and donations for nearly three years.

“But we’re still running,” Stafford said.

“We’re going to go as long as we can go.”

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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.