Lakeville fire department in flux amid apparent lapse in classification
Tensions have been high in Lakeville as a paperwork snafu has left the southern St. Joseph County town without its fire department for the last month.
Crews from a neighboring township have been handling calls, but the situation has sparked drama in Union Township over how the dysfunction began and who’s to blame.
Problems arose this spring when Union Township tried to sign a new contract with Lakeville Volunteer Fire Department Incorporated – the township’s volunteer outfit.
The issue at the heart of the situation is that the Lakeville volunteers are not registered with the IRS as a nonprofit entity, meaning the township’s insurance won’t cover them.
A solution proposed by Union Township trustee Kelly Carrico was to hire the 14 or so firefighters as township employees. But the volunteers didn’t sign on and the department shut down operations on April 12.
“On April 12 I was like ‘If we cannot get applications in hand and cannot get your certifications in hand, we have no other choice but to close the doors and find our fire protection from someone else,’” Carrico said.
Carrico was elected as trustee in November of last year and said she was first told by a township attorney that the firefighters weren’t incorporated in March. However, former Lakeville fire chief George Schaffer said the unit’s paperwork has been out of sorts for longer than that.
“We had discussed it at our firefighter meetings several times over the past several meetings, but no one wanted to do anything about it,” Schaffer said.
Schaffer’s been the fire chief for 10 years until this December and said past township trustees didn’t look carefully enough when they signed contracts with the firefighters. Schaffer said he suggested in unit meetings that the the department's secretary get the nonprofit registration figured out, but he never talked about it outside the meetings.
As for why the current volunteers didn’t go along with the simple solution of becoming township employees? Schaffer said the department had devolved into “an old boys” club” in the last few years of his tenure and he suspects the men chafed at the prospect of more oversight.
“That’s some of the failure of the Lakeville Volunteer Fire Department Incorporated was. We had rules, but nobody wanted to follow them. Nobody wanted to enforce them,” Schafer said.
In the meantime, the Southwest Fire Territory has been handling calls in Union Township. Carrico said the Southwest firefighters have gone “above and beyond” in responding to 23 calls in and around Lakeville over the past month. Though southwest units are further away, they are a professional department, meaning their response time is often faster since they are already at the station when a call comes in.
Both Schaffer and Carrico hope the majority of Lakeville fighters sign on to a new agreement to make them township employees. The deal will pay the volunteers the same amount, but former Southwest Fire Territory Battalion Chief Tony Reeves is being brought in to lead the new fire department.
“He’s a great guy, a great firefighter. People just have to give him a chance,” Schaffer said of Reeves. “I think he’ll bring some good leadership qualities to the department.”
Union Township has approximately $36,000 budgeted for fire operations, which is normally given out to volunteers based on how many hours each firefighters works throughout the year.
Carrico is hopeful the department will be back up and running by late next week, but Schaffer says there’s still a lot of work to be done with setting up the rules and regulations of the department.
Moving forward, Carrico hopes cooler heads will prevail in Lakeville, though she feels much of the animosity directed at her was due to her decision to protect the firefighters and frame the debacle as an insurance issue.
“It’s going to take time with the community to have that trust factor. I don’t know that we necessarily did anything to break the trust, it was more their personal opinions,” she said.
Meanwhile Schaffer feels there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“There’s a couple fingers that need to be pointed,” said Schaffer. “One at the board, because the board should be working to resolve this thing a lot faster than they are. And the other is the firefighters. Yes, they did not stay compliant with their regulations under federal law.”