County shut out of grants until fire station occupation resolved

Brown County will not be eligible to apply for grants from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs until it is able to resolve a years-long debate regarding the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department.

The county commissioners have been given three options, said OCRA Deputy Director Matt Crouch.

One is to return the fire station back to its original use and provide fire services. Van Buren firefighters haven’t been dispatched to runs in their area since summer, when a new fire department was formed to take their place.

The second is to find another eligible use for the building, such as a community center, senior center or other purpose that would serve the residents of the community.

The third is to repay OCRA for the $400,000 grant that was used to build the station. The amount the county would have to repay would be determined by an appraisal of the building.

Those three options are based on regulations from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Eric Ogle, director of OCRA’s Community Development Block Grant program. “We would have to do that with any grantee that has such a change of use situation,” he said.

OCRA has given the commissioners until March 5 to do something, commissioner Diana Biddle said. The county’s attorney is working on drafting a response.

“’Do something’ doesn’t necessarily mean pull a trigger,” she said. “We just have to be making steps toward correcting the problem.”

The shut-out on all grants will end after the situation is resolved. It does not affect the town of Nashville’s ability to apply for OCRA grants because it is a separate political entity, Crouch said. It only applies to the county being a lead applicant, which is a role the county plays for groups such as sewer boards, fire departments and the redevelopment commission.

OCRA had said on Feb. 12 that the shut-out applied to all grants no matter what state agency administered them, but clarified on Feb. 13 that it only applies to Community Development Block Grant funding through OCRA or the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority.

Statewide, this isn’t the first time there’s been a problem with an OCRA-funded facility not being used in the way it was intended, but it’s rare, Crouch and Ogle said. It’s never been a problem with a fire station before.

How we got here

From April 2015 until last summer, the Van Buren VFD and the Van Buren Township trustee’s office were locked in a legal battle about control of the fire station and fire department affairs, the release of documents and allegations of breach of contract.

In July, the township board severed its contract with the Van Buren VFD and created a new fire department, Southern Brown, to cover the territory that Van Buren used to serve.

Southern Brown now operates out of a pole barn owned by one of the fire board members near the Brown-Jackson county line. It would like to move into the Van Buren fire station, on State Road 135 South across from Van Buren Elementary, said board member Ben Phillips.

The station, however, remains in the hands of the Van Buren VFD.

The OCRA grant used to build it was written in the county commissioners’ name, with the fire department as the subrecipient, not the township. The fire department’s name also is on the deed to the land where the building stands.

One Van Buren volunteer remains — Chief John Ward — as well as two board members who aren’t firefighters. For months, they’ve been trying to decide what to do to keep their department active, hold onto the building and abide by the grant agreement.

Last week, Crouch said the agreement has already been violated since the fire station is no longer being used to provide fire services to the township. The agreement was that uninterrupted service had to be given in that building for five years past the close-out date for the grant — until October 2019, Ogle said.

OCRA stopped the clock on those five years in July, when the Van Buren Township Advisory Board voted to sever its contract with the Van Buren VFD and end the long-running lawsuit, Ogle said. If and when the building is returned to an eligible use, the clock will start ticking again, he said. It would be up to the commissioners to determine what to do with the building after the five-year-minimum use period has passed.

In the past five years, OCRA has awarded Brown County $2.368 million in assorted grants, Ogle said. That doesn’t count any awarded to the town of Nashville.

Losing the ability to apply for more is a big concern, Biddle said. She listed one application in progress and three others that county entities would like to go after soon. Those grants would help form an economic plan for Brown County, build the Bean Blossom sewer, finish the Helmsburg stormwater project and fix the rusted steps on the front of the Brown County Courthouse.

If the county does suffer financial consequences, that’s not on the fire board, said board member Jane Donaldson. It was common knowledge that the county might have to pay back the fire station grant if the trustee’s office and firefighters couldn’t come to terms.

But never did fire board members think when they sued the township in 2015 that it would come to this, she said. Filing suit was a show of force to get the contract money they hadn’t received. They believed it would be over quickly, she said.

“We didn’t do anything wrong. We sued to get paid for a job that we did, and we kept on doing the job even without the pay,” Donaldson said.

The township didn’t have to create a new fire department when it already had one, she said. The trustee and advisory board could have been more willing to negotiate in court-ordered mediation, she said. She and Ward believe the commissioners could have put more pressure on township leaders to pay the department what was owed.

“Instead, they sat back and they let us fight this out, and not only let taxpayers pay for all of this, but at one point (under a previous board of commissioners) they said they would mediate for us, and then they didn’t,” Donaldson said.

Biddle said she doesn’t believe the commissioners could have intervened before now, when OCRA is requiring it, because of the way the grant subrecipient agreement was written.

Van Buren Township Trustee Vicki Payne said she doesn’t know why the conflict was necessary in the first place, because the terms of Van Buren’s contract weren’t substantially different from any other volunteer fire department’s contract in the county.

She said she still doesn’t know when or why the fire board decided to change the practice it had followed for years in giving copies of its financial records to the trustee.

The commissioners did try to intervene around the time the lawsuit was filed in April 2015, by sending a letter to Ward. Signed by commissioners president Dave Anderson, it asks the fire department to give the commissioners the complete financial records of the department; and they would review them, determine if they were in good order, and advise the township to resume the department’s funding if they found no problems. “We, as commissioners of the county, want to resolve this dispute as quickly as possible in order to stave off any further legal action or conflict between the two organizations,” it said.

Ward said the department was willing to have a conversation with the commissioners back then, but the parties never got together.

He said he also was visited by a member of the county council last December who wanted to know what could be done to resolve the station ownership issue. December was when OCRA sent its first letter to the county about grant repercussions. No agreements were reached in that meeting.

Ward refuses to quit serving as a volunteer. While Van Buren isn’t actively responding, he’s joined the Nashville firefighters, and he says he plans to return to Van Buren when — not if — it has the chance to restart service.

A meeting has been advertised on the Facebook page Van Buren Township Volunteer Fire Department Supporters to “hear the latest news about our wonderful fire department and plans for the future.” It will start at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13.

Fixing it

Ogle and Crouch reiterated that OCRA is willing to work with the community to determine how the Van Buren fire station should be used.

But it is up to the county commissioners to make a decision: return it to being an active fire station, change its use, or repay OCRA.

Using the building to provide medical service to township residents could be considered an eligible use, Ogle said. Van Buren firefighters have been working toward getting Basic Life Support certification so that they could make medical runs in Van Buren Township, Donaldson said. Southern Brown VFD recently received that certification, said department member Tim True.

The county commissioners — not the Van Buren Fire board — would have to make that request to OCRA, since the county was the main grant recipient, Crouch said. A discussion would have to be had about the medical service provider’s equipment and certifications, what territory it would serve and other details, he said.

“At this point, Brown County would have to contact us with any plans for change of use, and they’re the ones that have to administer and carry out the change-of-use process,” Crouch said.

The commissioners also could choose to install another fire department in that building, which would return it to its original intent, Ogle said.

When the land for the station was bought — back when the township board and Van Buren firefighters were on better terms — it stood out as a prime location because it was so near the elementary school, Phillips said.

OCRA required that the grant agreement and the land be in the fire department’s name, Payne said. She believes OCRA bears some responsibility for what’s happened now.

If Southern Brown’s 15 firefighters and their equipment would be allowed to move in, it would give the department some “certainty of place,” Phillips said. The township trustee’s office could move into that building from the trustee’s house and the fire department would receive rent money, Phillips said. Payne also sees other possibilities, like a community internet access point, which she hasn’t yet discussed with the fire board or township board.

Payne said the commissioners haven’t reached out to her as a member of the Southern Brown fire board or as the township trustee as they face their March 5 deadline.

That date, for the commissioners to notify OCRA of what option they are choosing, is flexible as long if they continue to make progress, Ogle said.

“We really want to work with the community to resolve this issue and do what they feel will best benefit their residents,” he said.

“They have the three options and we leave it up to them.”

Contact the commissioners

Have an opinion about how the county commissioners should resolve this?

Dave Anderson (Hamblen Township): andersond@browncounty-in.us, 812-325-8354

Diana Biddle (Jackson Township, Belmont, Yellowwood area): biddled@browncounty-in.us, 765-318-1267

Jerry Pittman (Van Buren Township, Nashville, Gnaw Bone): pittmanj@browncounty-in.us, 317-966-1724

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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.