Residents, leaders discuss Van Buren fire station future

VAN BUREN TWP. — The Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department board and at least one county commissioner have pledged to meet and work through issues with ownership of the fire station which are preventing Brown County from receiving state grants.

One option could be dissolving the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department, which has served the township since 1976. That idea was brought up several times during an hour-and-a-half-long discussion at the Van Buren station Tuesday night.

The county commissioners have until March 5 to tell the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs which of three options they’re choosing to make good on a promise made when the building was built. The agreement was to use it as a fire station for at least five years.

Since the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department had its contract with the Van Buren Township trustee severed in July, OCRA is not recognizing Van Buren as a functioning fire department.

The three options the commissioners have are to put a fire department in that building that has a contract to serve Van Buren Township — either the Van Buren VFD, Southern Brown, which is the new fire department the trustee created over the summer, or another one; change the building to some other eligible use, such as a community center; or repay some or all of the grant money used to build the station, which was originally $400,000. The amount the county would have to repay would be based on an appraisal of the property.

Van Buren needs a fire station far more than it needs a community center, said county commissioner Jerry Pittman, whose district includes Van Buren Township.

The county also is dependent on grants to do projects that can’t be covered with tax money, he said. Community Development Block Grant funding from OCRA and the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority is now on hold until the commissioners resolve the station ownership issue.

“We want to talk to everyone involved,” Pittman said. “… We’re trying to effect what would be in the best interest of all citizens of Brown County.”

Brown County Commissioners President Dave Anderson was the first to suggest dissolving Van Buren VFD during the discussion last night.

Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department’s name is on grant paperwork that built the station, as well as on the deed to the land.

If the solution the commissioners choose is to put a fire department in that building, and that department is not Van Buren, Van Buren VFD would have to be dissolved and its assets sold, said Van Buren Chief John Ward.

Ward, who is a nonvoting member of the fire board, said he’s open to discussing dissolution, but it would take time to carry out if that’s what the commissioners choose to do. Equipment would have to be sold and the proceeds donated to a nonprofit — after the fire department’s outstanding bills are paid.

He and board members Bonnie Closey and Jane Donaldson told the crowd that Van Buren VFD still owes about $63,000 to its lawyer, who shepherded the department through a more than two-year-long legal battle with the township trustee over the fire protection contract and other issues.

Trustee Vicki Payne did not attend the meeting at the fire station, but her husband, Steve Payne, and son, Doug Payne, did. Both are members of the new Southern Brown Volunteer Fire Department. Van Buren Township Advisory Board member Ben Phillips also attended.

The packed room also included several people who are running for office in Van Buren Township; Brown County Council President Keith Baker; firefighters from other departments and former fire board members.

Ward also suggested that maybe the Van Buren VFD could be given more time to rebuild. This wouldn’t be the first time the station has gone through a rebuilding process in the 11 years Ward has been involved with it, he said.

“I’d be more than happy to sit down with the people who have legal authority to make a decision about what we’re going to do (fire board members) and see what we can work out,” Pittman said. “And I will do everything reasonable under the law … to work with you. My goal is to see that this becomes a viable volunteer fire station to serve the citizens of this township, and I don’t care whether it goes to these folks or these folks or those folks; I’m not taking anybody’s side here.”

He told the fire board they’re going to be hearing from the commissioners in the very near future.

“I’ve always believed that if reasonable people can sit down and have a reasonable discussion, then any problem can be reasonably resolved,” Pittman said.

“That’s all we’ve been waiting for,” Closey said.

Read more from this meeting in the Feb. 21 paper.