Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Trouble in the Pines: Township trustee, board clash over her effort to switch fire contract

Back To Front Page

 

By KEVIN NEVERS

Acrimony, accusations of bad faith, labored lectures on civic duty, meanderings into the minutiae of parliamentary procedure, hoots of disbelief and low mutterings from the public, and a general loggerheadedness: Tuesday night’s meeting of the Pine Township Board came perilously close at times to sidestepping into the fields previously--and more entertainingly--plowed by Parks and Recreation.

At issue: Pine Township Trustee Tammy Watkins’ cancellation earlier this year of the open-ended contract under which the Beverly Shores Volunteer Fire Department Inc. has been providing fire protection service to unincorporated Pine Township following the dissolution of the Pine Township Fire Department in 2016.

Watkins instead is seeking to replace the BSVFD with Pines FD Inc.--established in 2017 to provide fire protection service exclusively to the Town of Pines--and under a proposed new contract to extend the Pines FD’s fire protection responsibilities to the entirety of unincorporated Pine Township.

For the record, Watkins is listed on Pines FD Inc. documents as its Secretary/Treasurer. Her husband, Robert Watkins, serves as its Chief; and her son, Michael Watkins, as its Assistant Chief.

The BSVFD, for its part, has filed an injunction against Watkins’ cancellation of its contract. Pending a hearing on the matter, scheduled for Aug. 14, Beverly Shores is still providing fire protection service to unincorporated Pine Township.

In the meantime, the Pine Township Board made its own feelings clear on Tuesday, when members Matthew Smith, Margaret Richardson, and Joe Wagner first refused to approve the new contract with the Pines FD, then read into the record their findings in support of BSVFD’s application to continue providing fire protection service for unincorporated Pine Township.

Opinion

At Smith’s request, Pine Township Attorney John Espar opened the discussion on Tuesday night by summarizing his opinion, namely, that Watkins “first and foremost made the determination that the best qualified applicant is the Pines Fire Department Inc.” Espar noted that he himself joins Watkins in that determination, as there was “a number of legal issues I saw with respect to the (BSVFD’s) application itself,” namely, its failure to include documentation in support of a tax exempt status, which would make the BSVFD more likely to be awarded grants.

“I considered probably it was operating as a for-profit, which would require it to file tax returns,” Espar said. Then, Espar added, when he requested tax returns from the BSVFD, he received no response from that department’s legal counsel, prompting him to conclude that the BSVFD is actually failing to pay its taxes. “That goes to the heart of my assessment: the ability of an organization to maintain its legal status,” Espar said. “It speaks to its value of its legal relationships. It speaks to a big part of its organization and ability to carry out its government function. Not to take these deficiencies into consideration does a disservice to your community.”

It is clear, however, from the BSVFD’s application that its Board of Directors did in fact resolve in November 2018 to authorize Director John Hennessey to apply for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service and further that the board amended its bylaws specifically to “aid in gaining approval of 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.”

Cost

Also discussed was the cost of the two fire protection service plans.

The BSVFD quoted a prorated price of $10,000 for the final five months of 2019, and a full-year price in 2020 of $36,000. Under a five-year plan, the BSVFD quoted a price of $40,518 in the fifth and final year, 2024.

Meanwhile, Pine Township’s proposed new contract with the Pines FD comes in two versions, copies of which the Chesterton Tribune has obtained. The earlier version of the contract cites a price of $3,000 per month for the remaining five months of the year, for a total contract price in 2019 of $15,000. On Jan. 1, 2020, the contract would automatically renew, for a total contract price next year of $36,000, the same figure quoted by the BSVFD.

In the later version of the proposed new contract, however, the $3,000 figure is crossed out by hand and replaced--also by hand--with a price of $2,750, bringing the Pines FD’s 2019 contract price down to $13,700 and its 2020 contract price down to $33,000.

Motions

Members balked, though, at approving the proposed new contract with the Pines FD. Instead, Wagner made a motion to table that contract until members were provided with a copy of the old BSVFD contract and given a chance to review it.

“What does the old contract have to do with signing a new contract?” Watkins wanted to know.

Richardson--citing the injunction filed by the BSVFD, which specifically names the Pine Township Board--expressed her unwillingness to approve any new contract until she’d had a chance to review the old contract. “We did not vote to terminate that contract,” she said.

At this point Espar interceded. “On the table is the contract which the Trustee has determined to be most qualified,” he said. “You legal duty is to consider this proposed contract.”

With Wagner’s motion to table the new contract stymied, Smith announced instead his intention of introducing a resolution.

“You’re introducing a resolution without me?” Watkins objected. “You can’t do that. You’re the fiscal board. I’m the executive.”

“A resolution to address whether or not to approve the contract?” Espar asked.

Something like that, yes, as events proved. Members voted unanimously to approve Smith’s reading of the resolution into the record--not specifically to adopt the resolution itself--which he then did. Resolved: that the Pine Township Board “does not approve of the termination of the township’s fire protection contract” with the BSVFD, and that it “does not approve of the execution of any proposed contract with the Pines Fire Department Inc.”

The Resolution

In support of that resolution, Smith cited, among other things, the following:

--That the BSVFD offered a “more competitive price” for the remaining five months of 2019.

--That the BSVFD provides liability and property damage insurance on Pine Township equipment “at its expense instead of requiring the township to pay, as provided in the proposed contract with the Pines Fire Department Inc.”

-- That the BSVFD maintains all Pine Township equipment and the Pine Township fire station.

-- That the BSVFD “is more experienced and more capable of providing better fire service with better equipment than the Pines Fire Department Inc.”

-- That the BSVFD “has better mutual aid relationships.”

-- That the areas serviced by the BSVFD have a better Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating than the Pines FD: 5, compared to the latter’s 9, “only one step above the lowest rating of 10.”

-- And that the BSVFD’s not-for-profit status “is not a relevant criteria as far as the ability of a provider to provide needed firefighting service to the unincorporated areas of Pine Township.” In any case, the BSVFD is a not-for-profit and has applied for 501(c)(3) status.

Watkins’ initial response: a dire warning that “the IRS could come and take all of Beverly Shores’ equipment because they didn’t pay their taxes,” if, that is, Attorney Espar is actually correct and the BSVFD is a for-profit and tax delinquent to boot.

Watkins’ second response: that the BSVFD’s price will go up to $36,000 in 2020 and the Pines FD’s price “will stay the same.” By that she presumably meant that the monthly price under the later version of the proposed new contract with the Pines FD would remain $2,750 in 2020, for a full-year contract price of $33,000.

Watkins also stated that the Pines FD “has all sorts of mutual aid relationships”; that the “ISO rating doesn’t affect Pine Township”; and that the reason she included 501(c)(3) status in her original request for proposals was because, already having it, the Pines FD “can go out for grants.”

Another Motion

Smith then made a motion formally to adopt the resolution and Richardson seconded it.

Espar informed the board that Watkins “objects to the board making a resolution without her approval” and that he personally wants to review the document.

Or, Espar ventured, perhaps at issue “was a matter of semantics.” Is it the board’s intention less to adopt the resolution than it is to oppose the the proposed new contract with the Pines FD? “Is that essentially what your motion is?” he asked.

Smith confirmed that “yes,” that was the thrust of the motion. The three members then voted to adopt the resolution as read.

Watkins did take the opportunity to say that, should the court on Aug. 14 rule against the BSVFD, then its current, extended, contract with Pine Township is “done,” adding, “If they find in my favor, right then the contract is null and void.”

Public Comment

The board then opened the floor to public comment. Of note, Pines Assistant Fire Chief Michael Watkins wanted to know who actually wrote the resolution read by Smith. One by one, Smith, Richardson, and Wagner each said that they had not written it. But they declined to identify the resolution’s author.

At that point the Chesterton Tribune reporter walked out of the meeting.

 

 

Posted 8/5/2019

 

 
 
 

 

 

Search This Site:

Custom Search