HOPE — After more than four years of legal and financial tangles, the Hope Volunteer Fire Department has moved into its new firehouse.

The volunteer department provides firefighting services for the town of about 2,100 in northeastern Bartholomew County — the county’s second largest municipality after Columbus — and areas of Haw Creek Township outside the town limits.

The department’s 22 firefighters and eight cadets officially began operating out of their modern, two-floor facility Saturday at 103 Aiken St., at the intersection of South Street.

Moving the department’s firefighting equipment into the 18-room building occurred five weeks after county building inspectors issued a Jan. 5 occupancy permit.

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With 9,642-square-feet of space including a full kitchen, four bathrooms, showers and training area, the new firehouse is a substantial upgrade from the volunteer department’s home of 53 years — the 5,588-square-foot, one-time livery stable built more than a century ago.

“There’s plenty of room to move around without walking on top of each other,” deputy fire chief Chad Emmitt said, listing one contrast to the old fire station at 728 Harrison St., across from the Hope Town Hall.

Just inside the front door of the new facility, visitors can behold “Risking Lives to Save Lives,” a full-wall mural created by Hope artist Zack Reel that honors generations of firefighters that served the community since the department was established 105 years ago in 1912.

While firefighters brought their gear as well as the vehicles to the new station on Saturday, fire chief Randy Wood said non-essential items will be moved gradually over the next few weeks. Once the department gets settled in, an open house will be scheduled to give the public a look inside, the chief said.

It’s been a much-longer-than-anticipated wait.

When groundbreaking took place on what was then estimated to be a $700,000 fire station in late 2012, completion was expected in nine months.

But after cost overruns, a lack of funds, a since-settled lawsuit filed by the building contractor and tensions between the department and town leaders, the uncompleted building stood empty for more than three years.

The lawsuit prompted town leaders to delay payments to the volunteers. During the first ten months of 2015, the only source of revenue the department received was $50,000 from the Hawcreek Township trustee.

The town of Hope resumed offering limited financial assistance in October 2015 in exchange for fire protection. Two months later, the lawsuit was resolved out of court and a $72,000 annual firefighting contract with the Hope Town Council was reinstituted a year ago this month.

But it still took another 12 months to complete the move. That was largely a result of the department’s new policy of “paying our way as we go,” said Ed Johnson, a new town council member who served as project manager for the station’s completion. Until his recent retirement, Johnson was the longtime chief of the nearby Hartsville Fire Department.

When the final costs are tallied for the new Hope station, cost will exceed $1 million, fire department officials said.

Although the department benefited from several donations and deep discounts contractors offered on their work, it also took time to secure needed contributions, Johnson said.

A volunteer effort including local craftsmen and electricians enabled the department to complete some of the new fire station’s needed work. Donations and proceeds from fundraisers helped pay construction professionals to finish the rest, Johnson said.

The last significant task necessary before last weekend’s move was installing carpeting in key areas of the building, Wood said.

However, firefighters still will have to watch their step until all the carpet seams are sewn, the chief said.

One positive sign regarding the future was realized within an hour after the department posted its move on social media — in that a Hope resident inquired about becoming a volunteer firefighter, Wood said.

Both Wood and former fire chief Bruce Neal expressed confidence the new firehouse will become one of the best recruiting tools the department has ever enjoyed.

Key recent developments for new Hope fire station

Dec. 28, 2012: Groundbreaking is held on a new $700,000, two-story Hope Fire Station near the corner of South and Aiken streets, with completion expected in nine months.

Early 2013: The department agrees to allow builder Tim Ross delay completion in order to work on other projects, in exchange for a less-expensive rate. No new completion date is established.

Late 2013: Ross receives a number of construction alterations from county inspectors that fire officials say contributed to cost overruns.

April 2014: As the department exhausts its $600,000 construction loan, Ross and his crew continue to work on the project.

July 2014: With the building 80 percent complete, construction is halted by Ross’ construction company.

Dec.ember 2014:  Ross files a lawsuit in Bartholomew Superior Court 1 against the Hope Volunteer Fire Department, seeking $189,000 for work already completed. The payment received that month from the town of Hope would be the last the department would receive for 10 months, with town council members expressing concern that taxpayer money might be lost if the lawsuit causes the department to fold.

October 2015:  The town council agrees to pay the fire department $69,000 annually, with a condition that no town funds be used for the new fire station or for paying legal expenses. The offer is eventually accepted by the firefighters.

December 2015:  An announcement is made that the lawsuit has been resolved out of court.

February 2016: The Hope Town Council approves a $72,000 annual firefighting contract with the department, and construction resumes on the new fire station.

Jan. 5, 2017: Bartholomew County building inspector issues occupancy permit for new station.

Feb. 11, 2017:  The Hope Volunteer Fire Department begins operating from the new firehouse at 103 Aiken St.

State police investigation

Challenges the Hope Volunteer Fire Department has faced over the past  three years between groundbreaking on its new fire station and moving day have mostly been conquered, but the department’s problems may not be completely over.

Late last year, Wood asked the Indiana State Police to investigate whether funds were taken from the fire department. It is not yet clear, however, whether money was actually taken or whether apparent discrepancies were the result of bookkeeping errors, Wood said.

It is State Police policy not to comment on such matters unless charges are filed, and investigations can be closed without public acknowledgement that they even took place.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.