Will The St. Joe Township Fire Department Go Up In Smoke?

By Maureen Mespell
By Rachel Martin

December 22, 2011 Updated Dec 23, 2011 at 12:27 AM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Indiana’s NewsCenter) -- Emotions ran hot at Thursday night’s meeting where St. Joe Township Trustees were going to decide the fate of the St. Joe Township Fire Department and ambulance services. Trustees approved the contract proposal for the ambulance services, but the contract for the fire department is still up in the air.

The Trustees presented two separate contracts, one for St. Joe Township’s ambulance and emergency services, and the other for fire services. Trustees approved the contract for the EMT services, and now citizens in the township will now receive ambulance service from Three Rivers Ambulance Authority (TRAA). The contract will be at no cost to the township because TRAA charges user fees and will be effective Jan. 1.

“People in the unincorporated area (within St. Joe Township) now will get the highest level of ambulance service they can get,” said Richard Uhrick, St. Joe Township Trustee. “The people with St. Joe fire department are just medics. They can’t put IV’s in or give medicine or anything like that.”

Trustees had a $248K deal with the Fort Wayne Fire Department (FWFD) to take over and close the 57-year-old township facility, also by Jan. 1. But, emotionally-charged messages from St. Joe Township firefighters and community members delayed their decision.

Those against the take-over say they don't understand why the department needs to close when the firefighters are volunteers. Out of the 50 volunteers, the department only pays about a dozen workers. Firefighters say a neutral committee should be formed to decide what's best for taxpayers.

St. Joe Township Fire Chief Jerry Lencke says he feels the whole thing is convoluted and was not addressed or well thought out at all. He expressed his disappointment in the meeting with the short notice of the closing and feels the department wasn’t given a fair chance to counter-bid on contracts. Chief Lencke says the morale of the firefighters is at an all-time low, and to many volunteers it means their life. “This is sad,” he said. As of Thursday night, Chief Lencke and the firefighters say they’re unsure of their future.

However, trustees say it’s mostly a budgetary issue, and partly an operational issue. The department is not a 24/7 operation, and is closed on Saturdays and Sundays. But Uhrick says the main issue is that St. Joe Township has gone over budget.

“People in the unincorporated area, through taxes, are paying for the whole fire department. See, and that's a little over 5,000 people. And for that much money in taxes...it's uncomfortable, you know?” Uhrick said.

Uhrick says St. Joe Township's budget is the highest in the county, coming in at $398,400.

“Aboite Township is about $320,000 so we’re far more expensive than anybody in town and it shouldn’t be that way,” Uhrick said.

Uhrick says if the department can find a way to cut their budget by $150,000 it could help to save them from closing. Chief Lencke says they haven’t gone over budget, but if they can get a chance to sit down with Trustees, he could easily find a way to cut 40 to 50 percent of the budget. The Trustees agreed to work things out with the St. Joe Township Fire Department and will have a meeting next Tuesday.

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