By Cheril Vernon
Messenger Copy Editor
ELKHART – The Elkhart Volunteer Fire Department has started two petitions requesting the Elkhart City Council honor the long-time verbal agreement between the city and its volunteer fire department after the council voted on Tuesday, March 21 to separate the City of Elkhart from the fire department.
The Elkhart VFD received a certified letter on Monday, March 27 from the City of Elkhart’s attorney Blake E. Armstrong notifying the fire department of the council’s decision.
“Since 1936 the city has had a verbal agreement with the fire department,” Elkhart VFD Fire Chief Randy McCoy told The Messenger on Thursday. “We started a petition today simply stating that we are asking the citizens to support our request that the city council honor the agreement that we’ve always had with them. We started one petition for those who live inside the city limits and another for those who live outside of the Elkhart city limits.”
As of Thursday, petitions were available to be signed at one Elkhart business, Just Deb’s, located at 214 U.S. 287 in Elkhart.
“We are planning to put (the petitions) anywhere we can put them,” McCoy said, noting petitions also will be available from Elkhart VFD firefighters. “We have 1,300 citizens in Elkhart and my goal is to get 1,300 signatures,” McCoy said.
Also on Thursday, the Elkhart VFD began passing out copies of the letter received by the city attorney, along with a letter from the Elkhart VFD, signed by McCoy and Elkhart VFD Assistant Chief Bobby Cernoch to explain to Elkhart citizens what is going on between the two entities.
“To the citizens of Elkhart: EVFD has served the City of Elkhart since 1936. We have always had a verbal agreement with the city to provide emergency services in exchange for the use of the building we use as a station, insurance on vehicles through the City of Elkhart’s fleet plan in addition to the upkeep and utilities on the station. We have received this certified letter from the city attorney today (March 27) stating they are no longer going to honor this agreement. They have given us 60 days to vacate the building and are terminating the insurance on all fire trucks,” the Elkhart VFD letter reads.
The certified letter to Elkhart VFD from the City of Elkhart’s attorney includes the following actions the city council authorized during the March 21 meeting, severing its ties with the fire department:
• Fire Department shall vacate the current building used as a Fire Station within 60 days of March 21, 2017.
• By March 31, 2017, the City, through a duly authorized representative(s), will conduct an inspection at the Fire Station in order to inventory all personal property and equipment;
• All vehicles and/or “rolling stock” which are titled solely in the name of the City or jointly between the City and the Fire Department shall be donated by the City to the Fire Department;
• The City will take appropriate steps with Anderson County to remove the City’s name from any and all such titles regarding vehicles and/or “rolling stock”;
• The City will discontinue insuring all vehicles and/or “rolling stock” or any other property which is currently being insured by the City; and
• Any and all electricity, gas, or other utilities provided to the Fire Station will be disconnected within 60 days of March 21, 2017.”
“The City has always let us use the building, always paid for the insurance, always paid the utilities on the building,” McCoy said. “It’s never been a problem until I received a certified letter the other day, nine days after the meeting. Other than that, we have received no communication from the city. We weren’t even aware this was on the agenda. I haven’t spoke with them and we are still in the dark about it.”
According to McCoy, the Elkhart VFD’s coverage is 100 square miles, serving approximately 6,500 people, which includes 1,300 people inside the Elkhart city limits.
“If the funding for the fire department is cut, everyone served by the fire department is going to be affected,” McCoy said. “One of the issues is that it’s going to affect is homeowner insurance rates.”
Without a fire department in the city limits, the Insurance Safety Organization (ISO) rating for homeowner insurance will rise, McCoy said.
“Without a fire department it will drastically increase homeowners insurance from the way I understand it,” McCoy said.
The future of the Elkhart VFD is unclear, McCoy said.
“Right now, at this moment, I don’t know what the future holds. As long as we have insurance on trucks and fuel in them, we are going to respond to every call that comes in. If it comes to a point where we don’t have insurance or fuel or upkeep, we can’t guarantee anything,” McCoy said.
Many local citizens who have contacted the Elkhart VFD about their concerns have told members they hope the city and fire department can work out their issues for the betterment of the city.
“We are requesting the city abide and continue with the relationship and the verbal agreement that we always had. We are not asking for anything more,” McCoy said.
Elkhart City Mayor Mike Gordon told The Messenger on Friday, March 24 that something needed to be done between the City of Elkhart and the Elkhart VFD, and that based on advice from the city’s attorney, the two entities should separate.
“The relationship with the City (of Elkhart) and the (Elkhart Volunteer) Fire Department has been a long one over the last few years. Contrary to what people think, we do a lot to help the fire department,” Gordon said. “We pay to send them to fire school, which is quite a bit of money. We budgeted around $27,000 several years in a row to the fire department, plus we pay insurance on all of their vehicles and we pay utilities on the building. The thought that we never give them anything is totally false.”
“I think it would be better for them and for us if we totally separated,” Gordon continued.
The decision to sever the ties with the fire department stemmed from a Jan. 27 city council meeting during the consideration of an agenda item. The agenda item was in regard to disavowing a residence deemed as a substation for the Elkhart VFD. The discussion became sidetracked as council members talked to McCoy about the funding for Elkhart VFD.
During the discussion, McCoy said a past lawyer the Elkhart VFD had used had said the fire department shouldn’t provide services to the city without a contract.
“In the past, we never felt like we needed a contract. We do it because we live here and we know we would do the job,” McCoy said during the Jan. 27 meeting.
The Elkhart VFD does have a contract with Anderson County, as the county provides $13,000 annually to each volunteer fire department for fire protection.
The mayor said the council would set an “x amount of dollars” as a donation to the Elkhart VFD each year during the budget process “because we are part of the community like they are,” Gordon said.