FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Indiana’s NewsCenter) –More controversy swirling around the decision that kept the St. Joseph Fire Department open for another year.
At the beginning of the month, the St. Joe Township Board of Trustees and the Fort Wayne Fire Department (FWFD) came up with a contract to take over the St. Joe Fire Department. But, Richard Uhrick, Township Trustee, says there was a conflict of interest among board members.
Before the contract between the Township and FWFD could go through, it had to be voted on by board members. Uhrick, says the contract was denied by a two to one vote—and that's where the conflict came in.
Uhrick says board members, Barry Kunkle and Greg Sult, are the conflicts. Uhrick says Kunkle is a St. Joe Fire Captain and voted to side with his fellow firefighters. Sult works for Lupke Rice Insurance and Financial Services, the insurance company that covers the fire department. Uhrick says he feels they voted against the agreement because of their involvement.
“Definitely they wanted to save the fire department. But the problem, of course, is that they're [St. Joe Fire Dept.] volunteers. Fort Wayne Fire Department would have four stations with full time firefighters, seven days a week, 24-hours a day and now they have to depend on the volunteers to take care of the people,” Uhrick said.
Uhrick says it the conflict of interest won't affect St. Joe Township residents, but the 5000 people who live in the unincorporated area will not have 24/7 fire service because of the board's vote.
“The people on the fire department are great people,” Uhrick said. “But it was just a case of we needed to downsize and reduce the taxes that are being imposed upon these people and see if I could get them better service. That’s what I was trying to do.”
Jerry Lencke, St. Joe Fire Chief, attended Tuesday night’s board meeting with an update on the fire department. He says at the beginning of February, the department will be reduced to four on-duty volunteers. St. Joe’s EMS service was taken over the by the Three Rivers Ambulance Authority (TRAA) in December, and the paid workers and live-in fire crew were eliminated to minimize the budget. Uhrick says the department was over-budget costing St. Joe Township taxpayers $394,000. The spending was the initial reason for the proposed closure.
Although TRAA has taken over EMS duties, Lencke says they are still ACL (Advanced Life Support) certified—meaning, they have trained medics on hand, but they cannot transport anyone to a hospital. In 2010, the St. Joe Fire Department had 501 fire runs with 19 of them being structure fires. Lencke says their current volunteer crew and fire truck can adequately handle regular fires, and they can call for mutual aid from other departments incase of the larger fires. Lencke says 17 percent of their calls are for mutual aid from surrounding departments.
But, with the new contract for 2012, Lencke says he’ll make the sure the department does everything they can to significantly come under budget and justify the department’s existence into 2013. Although several former volunteers have offered to return, Lencke is busy recruiting for new volunteers. “It’s tough,” he said. He says it takes awhile to get recruits, and then it takes four to six months for training and certification. Lencke says he wants to work positively with the board over the next year. “Things could change,” he said.
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