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Wabash Trustee Calls Dispute Over Fire Department “Manufactured Crisis”

Angel Valentin and Jennifer Teising at last week's board meeting (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

The Wabash Township Board is scrambling this week to keep the township's three paid firefighters on staff, but Wabash Township Trustee Jennifer Teising said the issue is a “manufactured crisis.”

The township board has pitched a series of ideas for keeping the firefighters on staff - including creating an emergency response department that would report directly to the board. 

Teising said none of the proposals are a real solution to the township’s budget problem. 

“This is what I set out to do - to solve this problem,” she said. “We either are going to have real conversations about it or I’m going to move forward alone and get this budget to a place for the long term.”

Board members and the Wabash Township Firefighters Association have acknowledged that the township is facing long-term budget problems when it comes to paying fire staff, but argue that staff should be kept on at least through the end of the year. 

And board members and the trustee seem to agree that the best solutions for creating a financially sustainable fire department will include either creating a fire district or a fire territory. 

Trustee Teising reached out to West Lafayette to see about creating a fire territory with the city but, according to West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis, that effort never made it past the conversation stage. 

Board President Angel Valentin said the board has been in support of creating either a district or a territory. But he said the way the trustee has tried to campaign for a fire district has been insufficient and hasn’t given anyone enough time. 

According to Valentin, Teising didn’t begin seriously working to notify the public about the fire district until February.

“At this point, everything else is broken. All the stories are out about how she’s not at the office, and she’s not doing her job,” he said. “So nobody is going to take her word seriously.”

Trustee Teising fired the fire department’s chief in December of 2020. By February, the Township Firefighters Association had taken a no-confidence vote in her leadership. 

Teising said she has been frustrated by what she sees as a lack of communication since she fired the chief. 

“Since December of 2020 the only way that anyone has wanted to communicate is by going to the media and telling half truths,” she said. “If the fire department was so concerned about what was going to happen… why would they not take the options they’ve had for four months to solve this issue?”

Last week, the Wabash board moved township money from a fund normally used for purchasing new equipment such as fire trucks, and urged the trustee to use it on firefighter salaries. But Teising declined to use the funds on staff, saying that still didn’t resolve the budget problems facing the township. 

Teising said the board and fire department have engaged in fearmongering around what will happen to people when the department transitions to all volunteers.   

“Your house is going to burn down tomorrow, your children aren’t going to be safe, your pets are going to die,” she said. “This scenario that is being created that I don’t feel at all is an accurate depiction of what is going on in Wabash township. But for those people - that’s real for them!” 

Board President Valentin maintains that changes to the fire department staffing could lead to people dying. 

“There are people our firefighters have saved because they go on emergency calls and are often the first responders on scene,” he said. “We’re the closest people in a lot of situations.”

The Wabash Township Fire Department does about three to four runs every day, according to Joe Wade, Assistant Chief of the Department. And the department currently has about 18 volunteers.

Gary Cheesman is the Chief of the West Point Volunteer Fire Department. He said his department goes on roughly four calls a week and he has a roster of some 30 volunteers. He said the Wabash Fire Department would be asking a lot of its volunteer force to not have paid people on staff. 

“That’s a bit much to ask for a volunteer to take away from their family, work, and other things,” he said. “They really need it in their aspect.”

The board is expected to vote on a resolution Friday that would create an emergency response department tasked with reporting directly to the board. Board member David Tate described the resolution as something that would turn them into “quasi trustees.”

It is not clear whether the board has legal standing to do so, however.

In 2009, Attorney General Greg Zoeller wrote in an opinion that township boards do not have the authority to oversee the day to day operations of emergency medical services in a township. 

At the board’s most recent meeting, member Brendan Betz acknowledged that Trustee Teising was unlikely to go for their resolution, but said it could open her to further legal action. 

Valentin acknowledged that creating an emergency response department wasn’t the best solution - or even a likely one. 

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you this is a foolproof plan that will definitely keep our firefighters employed,” he said. “I can’t promise that.”

And Valentin said he’s frustrated by what he sees as the trustee’s unwillingness to compromise. 

“It’s her process or the highway. That’s not what governing is about,” he said. “You don’t just get to sit here and say ‘you didn’t like exactly what I said, well now I’m going to burn everything to the ground.’ It’s about trying to find a solution for our long-term problem as a township.” 

Teising said she doesn’t think legal action is a good use of township funds, but she welcomes a judge’s oversight. 

“I would love to have real conversations about this 100%,” she said. “I’m not advocating for it, I’m certainly not taking them to court but if that’s what they feel like they have to do - like I said they manufactured this crisis.”

And, Teising said, she’s not someone who is easily moved, and doesn’t lose sleep over the choices she’s made for Wabash Township.

“We all have to sit at night with ourselves and feel we’re putting good out into the world or we’re not,” she said. “I can tell you I sleep really well at night.”