CLARK COUNTY — Details have been released in the settlement of a civil lawsuit between two entities responsible for fire services in Union, Carr and Silver Creek townships in Clark County.
Terms of the settlement were finalized July 25 between the Tri-Township Fire Protection District and the Sellersburg Volunteer Fire Department, stemming from the lawsuit filed in May. Both sides say the details are a compromise that works — the Sellersburg department will retain control of Station No. 1 in downtown Sellersburg, and the Tri-Township District will assume control of Station Nos. 2, 3 and 5 once the contract between the two entities expires Sept. 20.
The Sellersburg fire department owns Station No. 4 at the Clark Regional Airport, which is not part of the agreement.
The Tri-Township District also will pay a portion of a loan the department has with New Washington State Bank for equipment and repairs — $225,000 over three years starting on or before the end of 2020. The Sellersburg department will give the Tri-Township district two fire trucks.
Keith Pulliam, representing the Tri-Township district board, said the agreement was in the best interest of providing uninterrupted fire service to the community.
"With the transition for providing fire service quickly approaching in September, the district felt it best to settle the dispute to ensure an orderly transition and to shift its focus from litigation to providing fire protection," Pulliam said in an email.
Rodney Scott, attorney for the Sellersburg department, said the agreement allows the department to remain operational, which he said has been the goal throughout.
"It resolves a lot of uncertainty and allows the department to make plans about future operations," Scott said.
Members of the Tri-Township district board, which has been the funding agency for the Sellersburg department for more than 30 years, voted in March to end their contract for fire services with the department Dec. 31, citing a poor relationship and concerns over some of the department's practices.
The Tri-Township district board members have been making arrangements for the district to start its own fire department. Over the last few months, they've hired an interim fire chief and secured firefighting equipment. Work is ongoing to hire part-time and volunteer firefighters.
In May, the volunteer department filed litigation against the Tri-Township board, citing in the complaint that the dissolution of their contract for fire services would negatively affect the Sellersburg department's other contracts. These include a long-term lease for use of four fire stations and a bank loan for equipment and repairs.
The two entities entered into a long-term lease in the early 1990s which was slated to expire June 1, 2040, for the four stations to be leased to the Sellersburg department for $1 per year.
In 2004, the Sellersburg department took out loans from New Washington State Bank for equipment and repairs to two of the four fire stations. In December 2013, the loans, totaling more than $1 million, were consolidated and extended to reach maturity in 2023.
The Sellersburg department stated in its civil complaint that this obligation would be impossible to fulfill without funding or the ability to provide services to the community. The Tri-Township district funds the department through a tax levy; in 2018, the department received around $1.5 million.
The department also recently filed a notice to end the contract before the Dec. 31 deadline, which the Tri-Township district board has accepted. The partnership will end Sept. 20, and the Tri-Township district will still pay the Sellersburg department a pro-rated amount of the fall tax settlement.
According to minutes from the July 25 meeting of the Tri-Township board, both the lease for three of the fire stations and the contract for fire protection with the Sellersburg department will expire at midnight Sept. 20. The Sellersburg department will also deliver the two fire trucks to the Tri-Township district at that time. The Tri-Township district has also secured three other fire trucks from an outside source.
The Sellersburg department will still operate out of the Utica Street station, providing training exercises and assisting neighboring departments.
"They can still operate as a volunteer fire department," Scott, attorney for the Sellersburg department said. "They'll be doing mutual aid with other departments and they certainly hope to find other contracted fire protection work."
But that doesn't mean that they'd be the ones to assist if there was a fire run within the three townships — even if it was near Station No. 1 on Utica Street. As of Sept. 21, the newly formed Tri-Township Fire Protection District department will be responsible for fire protection services to the roughly 22,000 individuals and 400 businesses in the three townships, and calls for fire runs will go to them.
Pulliam said although the new Tri-Township district department will not have control of the downtown station, this will not negatively affect any response times to those within the three townships.
"The district believes that the new fire department will have adequate response coverage from the Hamburg Way station," he said, adding that this facility is much newer and larger than the Utica Street station.