Letter: ‘Grant issue is really an issue of township trustee’

To the editor:

Van Buren Township has suffered under past and present trustees. Previous trustee Nettie Walls was prosecuted for misuse of township funds. This was in no way related to the fire department, although funds collected for the fire cumulative fund was involved. The only misconduct was in the office of the township trustee. Vicki Payne served on the advisory board for Mrs. Walls. Now, Mrs. Payne is the current Van Buren Township trustee.

One of the changes she invoked was paying the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department (VBVFD) quarterly instead of yearly. Why? Always before there was a yearly contract where terms were settled and financials, roster and other concerns were addressed. The department board was responsible for making it last throughout the year. Audits done over the years uphold that this was handled well. Any emergency needs would be handled by the cumulative fund. By going quarterly, the trustee was able to withhold the department funds for any reason. So the department was then put on hold to pay utilities and insurance until funds were released.

The trustee nitpicked every decision made by the VBVFD executive board: What and where we purchased items for the station, what colors we painted the walls and even who should be a member on the department. Payne questioned a locksmith because she knew someone that would have done it cheaper. Food for fundraisers could go through her suppliers at her gas station in Nashville. Payne was also hurt that the VBVFD did not purchase gas from her station.

It became very apparent that the trustee wanted to run all decisions made on behalf of the fire department. The trustee’s job description does not include the running of a fire department. It requires the contracting of said business. It is not necessary for a trustee to have say in the day-to-day operations. As an incorporated nonprofit entity, it is up to said entity to govern itself. This would have taken place if the trustee had not continually interfered with demands and eventually withholding funds. Five adult board members were not thought competent to make these decisions without the trustee’s input.

While under contract Payne refused to meet with the executive fire board on multiple requests. She denied any request for cumulative funds by compiling the township budget without telling us there was a deadline for the submitting of requests. The largest denial was the purchase of the propane boiler, which the radiant heat flooring required. The department looked into both a wood and propane boiler. Deciding that wood was impossible to use when the state requires strict guidelines in the storage and manpower used to burn it, the fire board asked for funds for an oil boiler. We were denied after complying with the trustee’s board request for several estimates on said oil boilers. They would only approve a woodburning boiler, which was environmentally unsafe for a school district.

We requested arbitration to settle our differences with the trustee. She did not respond to a registered letter and her board member, Ben Phillips, asked, “What are you going to do? Take us to court!” By this time the trustee owed the department for three quarters. The purchase of the boiler from the fire department contract and donation fund had put us in a difficult position. The VBVFD made the decision to take the trustee to court.

This was done in an effort to show we were serious about getting this settled. The trustee used this process to run the department to bankruptcy. Every court date was met with a request for an extension — 11 times! Mediation was ordered but the trustee’s first demand was Chief Ward’s removal. Payne told Jane Donaldson in a conversation, before she joined the board, that “I just hate turning the new station over to John Ward.” Money was raised by monthly dinners that eventually turned into weekly hamburger lunches, showing how hard the department worked to remain viable.

At some point, while asking for extensions, Payne decided to form her own fire department and just close down VBVFD. No public forum was used to determine the need for a new fire department. The township had absolutely no say in any of the money spent tearing one department up and funding a new department that had no building. The last court-ordered mediation came with no negotiation. The department was offered money to let the trustee sever our contract. The department came with a list of compromises but they would not even read them. The department could not afford the $60,000 needed to start proceedings for a trial and did not want the township to cover any more of the trustee’s legal fees that were already over $76,000. The department reluctantly accepted the severance.

Payne was under the mistaken belief that severing the contract would force the department to evacuate the building, allowing her new department, Southern Brown, to move in. It took the trustee three months to get her department up and running. VBVFD kept making runs for medical and fire even without a contract. This was not that surprising since they did this for three years without pay.

Now our trustee and commissioners want the VBVF department to take the blame for not fulfilling the terms of an OCRA grant. A grant that became void when the trustee severed our contract. A contract and grant that she helped to write. Payne knew more about the terms stated in the grant than anyone else in the township. The VBVFD had to remain a viable department for five years which included a township contract. Yet, after signing the grant, she proceeded to cut off the department’s funding, showed a negative view of the department publicly, and undermined all efforts the department made to be a viable station. Instead, she spent thousands to equip another department in competition — money collected for VBVFD that would have kept the department viable and a valuable asset to the township.

Southern Brown is now on their third chief, and Payne’s son is the assistant fire chief.

Looking at the whole picture, it becomes clear the township trustee position is one of no oversight. The commissioners denied knowing what was taking place, but the VBVFD asked for assistance repeatedly. They were told that the commissioners had no jurisdiction over the trustee. The commissioners, as guarantees of the grant, should have been vigilant in making sure VBVFD was successful in their new building. Now they would like VBVFD to dissolve and let them off the hook.

Jane Donaldson, VBVFD executive board member

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