New fire department being formed in county as Van Buren Fire, township leaders settle lawsuit

PIKES PEAK — The Van Buren Township Advisory Board has agreed to a monetary settlement with the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department, ending a more than two-year-long legal battle between them.

But who will come when an emergency call is made could be a little less clear, as both Van Buren Fire and a new entity, Southern Brown Volunteer Fire Department Inc., are both making plans to serve township residents.

The Van Buren Township Advisory Board voted to settle with Van Buren Fire for $64,050 during an 8-minute-long meeting July 3 in Trustee Vicki Payne’s living room.

The $64,050 was “much less than demanded” by the fire department, the township board said in a news release.

Fire board members said they didn’t “demand” anything, but they wouldn’t say how much they had asked for.

Both parties went to mediation June 13 — which was their second formal attempt at a non-trial end to the dispute.

Payment of contract money, release of financial and other documents, and the adequacy of the fire department have all been issues of debate.

Payne stopped paying the fire department in the fall of 2014, saying it was in breach of contract for not sharing its complete financial records.

Van Buren Fire sued the trustee and advisory board for breach of contract in April 2015, mentioning nonpayment and alleging “meddling” in the department’s affairs.

Payne said she quit taking a salary so she could pay for legal fees. For a time, they were being paid through the taxpayer-funded general fund.

Fire department board members estimated their legal bill was over $100,000, though they don’t expect to have to pay that much.

The township board’s attorney, Peter King, said the contract between Van Buren Fire and Van Buren Township — which was to last through 2019 — would terminate when the fire department received its settlement check. He estimated that would occur by July 6.

“It was time to put this dispute behind everyone so that the taxpayers of Van Buren Township could move forward without the expense of further litigation,” Payne said in the news release. “I firmly believe this will allow the township to establish new relationships for the provision of fire services.”

Further questions regarding who will serve on the new Southern Brown Volunteer Fire Department, how it will be funded, where it will be based and when its service would start were not answered at the meeting.

King said the situation is evolving and more information would be released to the newspaper as soon as possible.

No further information had been released as of press time.

King told the township board he’d ask for the lawsuit to be “dismissed with prejudice,” which means that the plaintiff — Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department — would be barred from filing another lawsuit based on the same grounds.

“The board took seriously the contract requirements that the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department was to deliver adequate and reasonable fire service to the citizens of Van Buren Township. We believed this was not occurring,” advisory board President Ben Miller said in the written statement.

“With this agreement, we believe that the health and safety of our citizens will be restored as a priority once again.”

Van Buren Fire board members said in a written statement that this settlement “allows the fire department to remain independent, which ensures staffing, training and operational decisions are made for the collective good of the department and the community, and not based on family, business or political connections.”

The departments

Southern Brown Volunteer Fire Department was incorporated July 3, the same day as the township board meeting, King said. The board’s news release said a number of township residents have agreed to serve.

“I hope we can all work together to support the new firefighters serving Van Buren Township,” Miller said. “This is in the best interest of the township.”

The Indiana State Fire Marshal’s Office is aware of the new fire department but didn’t have any other details about it, its public affairs office said.

Volunteer fire departments aren’t legally obligated to provide rosters, lists of equipment or other details to the state office, and training and staffing for volunteer departments are at the discretion of the fire chief, the public affairs office said.

However, a new state law, HEA 1370, now mandates that all volunteer firefighters take the same 64 hours of training as full-time paid firefighters before they are able to respond to an emergency call.

The Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department dates back to 1976, according to newspaper archives. It started with nine volunteers.

As of the end of this June, it had eight, said Chief John Ward. During weekday work hours, he’s often the only one available to respond.

Until 2014, Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department was housed in a pole barn on Hamilton Creek Road with a port-a-john outside. Multiple people — including Trustee Payne — worked tirelessly to get a federal grant to build the current station across from Van Buren Elementary on State Road 135 South.

The day before ground was broken in October 2013, Ward had quit the department amid discussion about how money was being handled and overseen, and a new chief, Terry Miller, had been voted in. But by the time the station was built and ready to be moved into, Ward was back at the helm.

Miller was present at the July 3 township board meeting; so was Doug Payne, Vicki Payne’s son and a volunteer firefighter for another department. Doug Payne would not answer questions about whether or not he planned to serve on the new Southern Brown Volunteer Fire Department.

Last month, Vicki Payne had asked several area volunteer fire departments, including Brown County (Nashville), Hamblen, Southwest Bartholomew and two in Jackson County, if they’d cover Van Buren’s territory. They promised to continue offering mutual aid, but did not accept the offer to be the primary fire department serving southern Brown County.

“We can’t even cover our own area; we aren’t going to take on another territory,” said Nashville Fire Chief Nick Kelp. He said Van Buren has been backing up Nashville more than usual during the past two weeks because his department has so many mechanical problems with its trucks and is down to five trained volunteers.

Ward, returning from one of those runs July 3, said he and his crew plan to keep responding wherever they are called, even without a contract or the prospect of getting one. The department has been existing on donations and fundraisers for more than two years; it’s been selling sandwiches or chicken dinners every Saturday.

“A contract makes it nice because we have guaranteed funds coming in, but we’ve managed to keep the doors open for this long and we continue to make runs,” he said.

He said if there ever came a day when Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department had to cease responding to fires for some reason, Ward’s plan is to switch over to acting as a “special rescue unit.” Those volunteers would respond to incidents in the woods, such as horseback riding accidents or injured hikers, and car crashes and other emergencies requiring extrication, he said.

“This department has insurance, it has apparatus, and it has certified people,” Ward said.

“We’re not going to quit on our community.”

County effect

There had been concern that if the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department ceased to operate before January 2020, the county would be liable to pay back the $400,000 grant that enabled it to build the station.

The land the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department was built on belongs to the fire department, which is a separate legal entity from township government. The fire department also owns the trucks, said fire board Secretary Heather Stafford.

County commissioner Diana Biddle said last week that the grant maker, the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, hadn’t pressed the issue, and no liaison is currently assigned to cover this region, so they haven’t discussed it with OCRA. But if it did, the county would have some options.

The commissioners would have a period of time to change the use of the building to serve a community function, such as a community center, she said. But the fact that the building was built on land the county doesn’t own could pose challenges to that sort of attempt. “You can’t separate a building from the real estate,” she said.

Another thing the county could do would be to come calling on the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department to pay that $400,000. “What are we going to do, foreclose on a fire truck?” Biddle said. “I don’t think that’s what we want to do.”

She pointed out that it’s not unprecedented to have more than one volunteer fire department covering a township. Jackson Township has two: Jackson Township, based in Helmsburg, and Fruitdale, based in Bean Blossom.

Jackson and Fruitdale currently have contracts with the Jackson Township trustee. Throughout the past 15 years there had been a spotty history of disputes over contracts and response areas in that township, but none which rose to the level of a civil lawsuit.

Brown County Emergency Management Agency Director Susan Armstrong was at the June 27 meeting at Southwest Bartholomew Volunteer Fire Department when Payne offered Van Buren’s territory to volunteers in the neighboring county.

She said she was there to understand what everyone’s role would be in protecting Brown County.

“As long as John (Ward) is insured, he’s recognized by the fire marshal’s office as well as my office as a fire department. So he’ll continue to stay in the plans,” Armstrong said.

Brown County Dispatch Supervisor Brenda Wojdyla said dispatch’s job is “to get help where it is needed as quickly as we can. With that said, we will continue to tone VBVFD,” she said.

“If and when we are notified of a new department that is ready to receive calls in Van Buren Township, we will tone them as well.”

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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.