CLARK COUNTY — The Sellersburg Volunteer Fire Department has filed a lawsuit against the Tri-Township Fire Protection District, citing breach of contract for the board's March decision to break ties at the end of the year.
On March 21, the Tri-Township board voted to not renew its contract with the fire department which expires at midnight Dec. 31, but instead start its own department to continue fire protection to the 22,000 residents and more than 400 businesses in Union, Carr and Silver Creek townships in Clark County.
At that and prior meetings, board members spoke of the poor relationship between it and the nonprofit department, which it funds through a tax levy.
"Since the early months of 2018, the board of fire trustees has expressed its dissatisfaction with the level of service provided by [the department] under the contract, as well as the operating and safety practices that [the department] employs while providing services under the contract," court records show. "But [the department] has wholly rejected the board's demands for an improved level of service or amendment of its operating and safety practices."
Tri-Township board members also expressed, through a presentation given by their attorney, that they wanted to be able to have more oversight with a fire department. The nonprofit department is different than a public agency, as it is not subject to the same set of standards for transparency to the public. However, it is funded through a tax levy channeled through the Tri-Township district, which is a government agency. In 2018, the department received roughly $1.5 million from the fire protection district.
Following the March meeting, the fire department was officially notified of the decision, which will end a decades-long relationship between the two entities.
The Sellersburg Volunteer Fire Department has provided services to the area since 1949, and has contracted with the Tri-Township district since 1988.
The civil suit, filed May 21 in Clark County, states that ending the agreement will affect other contracts — specifically a long-term lease for fire stations and a bank loan for equipment and repairs.
The fire department and Tri-Township district have a long-term lease started in the early 1990s which expires June 1, 2040, for four fire stations leased by the department for $1 per year.
In 2004, the fire 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 department complaint states that this obligation will be impossible to fulfill without funding or the ability to provide services to the community.
"The wrongful and unfair actions of the fire district in breaching these agreements is an attempt to leave [the fire department] without revenue, facilities and equipment while saddled with crushing loan obligations," according to a news release by department attorney Rodney Scott.
"The rash decision by the fire district trustees ignores ...70 years of proven, dedicated fire service to the community and the noble service of its professional and volunteer firefighters." As of March, the department had 17 paid personnel and around 50 volunteers.
The complaint requests compensation for the claims, or for the judge to find that the fire district must take over the loans starting Jan. 1 and the fire department be allowed to remain as renters of the fire stations until the leases expires in 2040.
It also requests that the fire district pay court costs.
A response filed by attorneys for the fire protection district May 31 "denies that it has in any manner breached its contract with SVFD or that SVFD has incurred any damages," court records show. It also asks for a judge to declare injunctive relief and intervene if the department does not "peaceably surrender" the stations by midnight Dec. 31.
In March, committees were formed to seek solutions to hiring a fire chief for the new department, getting equipment and startup funding. The fire protection district intends to use tax levy dollars previously paid to Sellersburg to go toward the new department.
At the April 16 meeting, the Tri-Township board voted to hire Amir Mousavi, safety manager for Jeffersonville, to serve as a part-time consultant while the fire protection district moves forward with setting up its own fire department.