News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 8, 2013

Spat ignites over fire district

New Goshen chief, longtime Sandford fire leader differ on agreements

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A long-simmering dispute went public Thursday between the New Goshen Fire and Rescue Department and the Fayette Township Volunteer Fire Department of Sandford, as officials from the two agencies disagreed about arrangements concerning the latter’s station and equipment.

John Schoffstall, New Goshen fire chief, issued a media release, detailing his agency’s side of a 21⁄2-year process, which has culminated in its assumption of fire protection for Sandford.

According to Schoffstall, the Sandford department approached his in June 2010, advising it would be dissolved because of lack of funds and volunteers. At that time, he said, Sandford requested to be declared part of the New Goshen Fire District.

“This didn’t mean hide nor hair to us. We were doing this as a favor to them,” he said Thursday in his station. Residents of that district deserve protection too, though, he said, and he agreed to initiate the process required to cover that district.

Schoffstall stated in his release that, “It was represented to the New Goshen Fire and Rescue that the firehouse, equipment and funds from the Sandford Fire Department would be turned over to the New Goshen Fire and Rescue in order that those assets would be used for providing fire protection in the future for the taxpayers of the area that had previously been protected by the Sandford Fire Department.”

Inside his station, Schoffstall said Sandford fire chief Larry Biggs had appealed to New Goshen multiple times asking for this, and that he agreed that the prevailing agency should assume ownership of the Sandford fire station, trucks and equipment.

Biggs declined to comment on the matter Thursday afternoon.

“Right now it’s between the lawyers,” he said.

The New Goshen department is represented by Terry Modesitt, and the Sandford department by Richard Shagley Sr.

Schoffstall acknowledged that the agreement was not documented in writing, although the agencies did go through the legal process of changing the districts with the Vigo County commissioners. The agreements about the station and equipment did not take place in meetings where minutes were taken, he said. It was just understood in those public meetings that the agreement had been made, and that the transfer would occur, based on bylaws of the Sandford district in the event of dissolution, he said.

“Unfortunately, no. That’s part of the problem,” he said, adding his department has now served Sandford since July 1 from its station, seven miles away.

Insurance regulations require a fire station be located within five miles of the farthest point in a district, he said, meaning insurance policies could rise as much as 30 percent unless his department builds a new station in Sandford. That could cost $300,000 plus land acquisition, he said, adding his agency won’t receive tax revenues from the Sandford district until July 2013.

The Sandford group, he said, plans to sell its station and some of the equipment and give the proceeds to local charities.

Don Vermillion, president of the Sandford Fire Department, agreed that’s the intention and said the process is underway. But the rest of Schoffstall’s claims, he said, are false.

“I say he is,” Vermillion said when asked if he felt Schoffstall was lying. “He can’t get any proof of who gave him authority to do it.”

Vermillion said no agreement was ever made, hence no written record of the alleged deal.

“Where they got their authority, I have no idea,” he said of individuals involved in the alleged negotiations.

Vermillion said he’s been president of the department five years and a member for 50. The district ran out of money because township trustees wouldn’t approve more funds, he said, blaming that on an expansion of the New Goshen district 10 years ago.

Schoffstall also said hard feelings have existed between the agencies since that redistrictring and subsequent change of funding.

Vermillion said the move effectively carved his department out of existence.

“And that just left us in a little hole,” he said, arguing this could have been settled last year if Schoffstall had agreed to the official terms he issued as president of the Sandford department.

According to a letter dated Dec. 17, 2012, signed by Vermillion, provided to the Tribune-Star by Schoffstall, the Sandford department offered to give New Goshen a 1997 International pumper truck, as well as hazardous-material and related medical equipment.

The department’s cascade system would be given to the Shepardsville Volunteer Fire Department, and the remaining assets would be sold, according to the letter. Regarding the station and associated real estate, the letter states that “the new owner will agree to lease the back two bays to New Goshen Fire Dept. for a five year contract at fair market value. The owner of the building will be responsible for the heat, and insurance on the building. (Not the trucks).”

Vermillion said Thursday a sale had not yet been made, and he declined comment on pending details.

“They could have had the truck four months ago had they just signed one piece of paper, but they didn’t want to sign, they wanted to push,” he said.

Schoffstall described the offer as insulting considering the cost of assuming the new district, and the fact that the property in question was purchased with tax money. Since July 1, his department has responded to six medical runs, one vehicle entrapment and one fire in Sandford, offering equal service to that it provides in New Goshen, he said.

But the department’s current budget is not built to handle the extra coverage its assumed as a favor, he said, reiterating his department won’t receive Sandford’s share of the tax funding until July. After that, his department should get an additional $35,000 per year, he said.

“The biggest thing is, if we don’t get the firehouse, we’ll have to build one,” he said, stating that’s unfair to taxpayers when one is available.

“No, I’m not going to sue them. We just want to get the word out to people,” he said, encouraging citizens to voice their concerns to their elected representatives.

Vermillion said he disapproves of the way Schoffstall has gone public with the issue, noting the topic has now been posted on Facebook.

“That’s no way to go about doing things,” he said.

Meanwhile, Vermillion said he intends to go through with the sales and donate the proceeds to local charities.

“I got 50 years in the place,” the 71-year-old said. “I can’t see taking 50 years and throwing it down the drain. I’d rather give it away.”

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.