Commissioners respond to OCRA about fire station ownership

The Brown County Commissioners have made their choice known to the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs: They intend to restore the Van Buren volunteer fire station to use as a fire station.

But which fire department will occupy it hasn’t been determined yet.

Until that is determined, the ownership issue is resolved and the terms of the grant contract that built the station are fulfilled, the county is unable to receive any other community development block grants from OCRA or the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority.

“We have some negotiations underway with the fire department (Van Buren VFD),” county commissioner Jerry Pittman said this afternoon. “I can’t really speak much to that because nothing is final yet, but we are in negotiation with the fire department on the resolution of the matter.”

The commissioners had until March 5 to notify OCRA which of three options it was choosing to make good on the grant contract used to build the station. Their other options were to repay some or all of the $400,000 grant, or convert the fire station to some other eligible use.

The Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department ceased to be fire department in OCRA’s eyes when it no longer had a contract with the Van Buren Township trustee, said Pittman, whose district includes Van Buren Township.

That contract was severed in July after years of court battles between the fire department and trustee’s office. The same month, a new department, Southern Brown, was formed to serve the township.

In December, the commissioners were notified that they were in violation of the grant agreement, as the building had to remain a functioning fire station for five years after grant paperwork was completed. A response had been due in February, but OCRA gave the county an extension until March 5.

Pittman and a few other county officials attended a Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department meeting on Feb. 13, and Pittman pledged to sit down with the fire board to find a solution. Possible solutions mentioned were dissolving the Van Buren department, putting another fire department in the building, or having Van Buren share a contract to cover the township with another fire department.

Pittman said today that he’s been in contact with the Van Buren Fire board, but a face-to-face meeting hasn’t happened yet. He hopes it will happen this week.

He hasn’t spoken with Southern Brown or the Van Buren Township trustee’s office, he said.

“Obviously, we have to get something worked out with Van Buren VFD, since they hold the title to the property. As long as they’re in possession of the title, we can’t really do anything different as far as setting up anything with another fire department. And I don’t think, I’m not positive, but I don’t think the commissioners really have any authority to contract with a fire department for fire services in that township. It’s really up to the trustee.”

He said it’s not unheard of for a township to have two fire departments serving it. The Jackson Township trustee has contracts with two fire departments based in the township, Jackson and Fruitdale, which cover different areas of the county.

“We don’t really care if we have two fire departments,” Pittman said. “I don’t know that it’s ideal, but it works up there.”

However, “If the trustee chooses not to contract with them (Van Buren), there’s not really anything the commissioners can do about that,” he said.

Right now, the Van Buren Township Trustee has a contract with Southern Brown. It became effective Oct. 15, 2017, and ends Dec. 31, 2018, Pittman said, looking at a copy of it. He had heard the false rumor that the trustee didn’t have a contract with any department, so he asked for a copy.

He said it’s also untrue that the commissioners can tell another elected official what to do, as some members of the community have suggested. Elected officials, including township trustees and advisory boards, answer to the voters. “While we (the county commissioners) might be the executive (branch) of county government, we really don’t have power over the other elected officials, only over people that work for the county under us. There’s been some suggestions that we should tell the trustee to do this or that. We can make a suggestion, but we don’t have any kind of powers to do anything,” he said.

The commissioners are to check in with OCRA every two weeks and report on progress, Pittman said.

Read more in the March 14 paper. 

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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.