St. Joseph Township will eliminate its volunteer fire department Jan. 1, and Fort Wayne fire crews will provide service to unincorporated areas of the township.
Mayor Tom Henry signed a contract Tuesday with township officials that calls for the Fort Wayne Fire Department to serve about 5,500 residents there. Most of the township's 80,000 residents live within city limits and already are served by the department.
John Perlich, a spokesman for the mayor, said township Trustee Sarah Gnagy asked the city for help to provide fire service to the area.
“Working together, we have found a way to give her that help in a way that is mutually beneficial for the citizens of both the city of Fort Wayne and the unincorporated area of St. Joe Township,” Perlich said in an email.
Gnagy said Wednesday she has been working for months with the city to shore up emergency fire service to the area, which has seen commercial and residential development in recent years. The 23-person volunteer department is ill-equipped to serve the growing area, and the city department is better suited to provide full-time, 24-hour coverage, she said.
The township's board voted to approve the contract on Monday, and Gnagy said she met with firefighters Tuesday.
“It just made sense,” she said. “There's no hidden agenda here. It wasn't a hostile takeover.”
The fire department was central to campaigns for the office of trustee, to which Gnagy was elected this month to a second four-year term. Gnagy, a Republican, was opposed in a May primary election by firefighter Jeremy Bush and Fire Chief David Ringer.
Democrat Carol Griffin challenged Gnagy unsuccessfully for the trustee post in the Nov. 6 general election and led a campaign focused on mismanagement within the office and at the fire department. Gnagy and Ringer – who is suing Griffin for defamation in Allen Circuit Court – have denied the allegations.
Ringer was paid $50,128 last year and is the fire department's only paid employee. His contract with the township is set to expire at the end of the year.
Gnagy said in a statement the agreement with the city was supported “100 percent” by the township board and Ringer.
“It is without question that St. Joe Township is grateful and appreciative of the volunteer fire department efforts over the years to serve the township-unincorporated area,” she said. “The sacrifices and selfless acts of valor of our volunteer fire department will not be forgotten.”
Ringer will stay on after Dec. 31 as a consultant to help guide the transition to city fire service, Gnagy said. Ringer referred questions to Gnagy.
The township will pay the city $250,000 per year for fire protection, according to a seven-year contract. The Fort Wayne Fire Department also will provide inspection services to businesses in the area, and the township will pay $12,700 each year to reimburse the city for those.
The contract also calls for the township to pay $350,000 over seven years – $50,000 each year – for the city fire department to lease a new fire truck at Fire Station No. 8 on Rothman Road.
The city will pay $20,000 per year to lease the building on Maplecrest Road where the volunteer department is housed.
“The cost of the improved fire service is expected to be the same as the township is currently spending and budgeting for the volunteer department,” Gnagy said in the statement.
The township budgeted about $345,000 for its fire fund in 2019, according to documents filed with the state.
St. Joseph Township has had a fire department for at least 60 years, but it has existed in different forms.
Former Trustee Richard Uhrick, Gnagy's father, worked to downsize the department and sold off some equipment. The department was disbanded in 2013 and replaced with contracted services from Three Rivers Ambulance Authority and a new name: St. Joseph Fire Rescue Corp., which is controlled by the trustee.
John McKay, a member of the township's three-member board, said the city will provide the unincorporated area with comprehensive, around-the-clock coverage.
“St. Joe has always had problems with its fire department,” he said. “The time was right. The response time for a professional, on-site fire department has got to be better.”
City firefighters who will serve the township will come from the Rothman Road site and stations on North Clinton Street and Lahmeyer and Coldwater roads, according to the contract.