Letter: Issues in Van Buren Township need further review

To the editor:

I’d only lived in the county for a few years when I gained a rather unique view of Brown County’s county and township governmental units through audits I conducted while a field examiner for the Indiana State Board of Accounts. The county was suffering through the multi-year effects of bad decisions made by county and township governments regarding property reassessment. My audit of Van Buren Township also indicated many issues required corrective action. But there was no indication of lapses of fire protection.

Common area belief has it you must live in Brown County a very long time before no longer being considered an outsider. And in the years following my tenure with SBOA I lost awareness of affairs both in county and township government. I’ve only recently learned of the disaster that’s taken place since 2013 when the commissioners and the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA) crafted a grant issued to a subrecipient, Van Buren Volunteer Firefighters, which was flawed by design and a disaster waiting to happen.

Township volunteer firefighters are very dependent upon the goodwill and more importantly, financial support, of the township trustee. It doesn’t take much inquiry to get an earful about the animosity which ignited between the Van Buren trustee and principles serving the fire board about its desire to enforce firefighter quality standards and whether or not financial controls to the trustees’ liking was in place for VBVFD. No one appreciates internal financial controls more than a retired auditor like me — until it results in a suspension of my fire protection services. That’s a great example of government overreach.

I regret losing touch with the goings on in my local government. If I’d known that the trustee and VBVFD were feuding I would’ve spoken up and spoken out. I would’ve insisted that a way be found to prevent, or at least stop, a grossly irresponsible and wasteful outcome which, to date, has cost me and other Van Buren township residents well over $200,000 in taxpayer funds to litigate the trustee’s decision to stop paying the fire department under their contract and set up another fire department.

But astonishment describes what I felt upon seeing a transcript of a recorded 2014 meeting in which the board of the fire department agreed to a financial audit at the request of the trustee. That evidence would’ve sunk the trustee’s defense, had the court battle ever made it past the avalanche of pre-trial motions bought and paid for with up to $250,000 of township funds intended for fire protection and first responders. That includes the attorney fees of the VBVFD, which township taxpayers would’ve been on the hook for had the trustee lost the case.

Nor do I take comfort in the numerous times individuals have informed me of a meeting that took place in 2014 prior to the filing of the lawsuit, which included one or more county commissioners, a representative from OCRA, and VBVFD’s board. What’s disturbing about that meeting is the comment attributed to a commissioner at that time, that the VBVFD and the trustee “needed to stop feuding” and a characterization of the meeting that it was intended to provide “mediation.”

In other words, contrary to recent public comments made since OCRA issued its grant non-compliance letter, county commissioners were aware of the situation — as well the county commissioners and OCRA should’ve been when creating this grant in 2013. Trustees and volunteer fire departments are well known for having their disagreements. A recent press article (from Indiana Public Media) proclaimed something such as “Fire department holds county hostage.” A more thorough examination of what’s occurred here by an energetic media member might generate a headline more like “Oops, we did it again.”

And here we are, in a situation somewhat reminiscent of the property reassessment fiasco of over a decade ago. According to my township trustee, my township has incurred $117,000 in legal fees to defend a lawsuit over $64,000 owed to VBVFD, which was paid anyway to settle out of court. And Van Buren township has now spent roughly another $100,000 to equip another firefighting unit. What I find even more objectionable is the idea of a lapse in my fire protection. And that could include when it’s from a new, inexperienced group, the respective credentials as firefighters and emergency first responders of which appears extremely limited by a review of such through the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

And curiously, according to the Van Buren Township trustee and advisory board at its public meeting held Feb. 27, the township neither currently, nor previously has had a contract for fire protection with the new volunteer fire department. Once more I was surprised to see an article describe a commissioner holding that same contract in hand, dated October 2017, and referring to its non-existence as a “rumor.” Starting rumors is not in any officeholder’s list of official duties.

I’ve been motivated by this situation to file for election to the Van Buren Township Advisory Board. As an office-seeker and resident of the county and township, I recently called on the county commissioners and OCRA to remediate the threat to fire protection and emergency services to Van Buren township and the suspension of the county grant application. Based on the trustee’s statement of the lack of a current contract, I suggested doing so quite simply by the execution of an interim contract between the county, as grant recipient, and VBVFD, the subrecipient, for the latter to provide fire protection through 2018. The issue can be revisited after the voters have passed judgment this November on what’s occurred.

The grant program will return to a status of compliance, the operation of the most highly trained firefighting unit will resume, interpersonal matters previously interjected will be appropriately removed, and there will be no need for the county taxpayers to return a $400,000 grant to the state or continue to endure a suspension of other worthy grant applications.

Kevin G. Fleming, Van Buren Township

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