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Fish and fun drew people by the dozens to the Clay Township Volunteer Fire Department during a blue-sky fall weekend.
They traveled in mid-September to the station on 25th Street east of Columbus to munch on the department’s fried fish sandwiches, get an up-close look at the department’s equipment, watch a garden-tractor pull competition and enjoy each other’s company.
But more importantly, they came for a cause.
They wanted to support their township’s fire department, which a year ago was in jeopardy of being unable to operate.
There was no money for state-mandated training or equipment upgrades. And much of the equipment the 20-member department did have began breaking down because there wasn’t enough money to keep it in proper working order. The financial woes were tied to problems created by former Clay Township Trustee Christa Acton, which led to an Indiana State Police investigation.
“We thought we were going to lose everything,” Fire Chief Doyle Morgan said.
But slowly and steadily, with the help of supportive residents both inside and outside the township, the fire department has regained its footing.
Jeff Brown, a Columbus Regional Hospital paramedic who attended the fish fry, said the caring demeanor and professionalism displayed by Clay Township firefighters is worthy of both respect and support.
“They are dedicated and love what they do. It’s in their hearts to do this job, and they love their communities,” Brown said.
The fire department has had a $40,000 annual contract to provide fire protection for the township’s nearly 3,300 residents. The township includes the unincorporated town of Petersville and the Jewell Village subdivision, both of which have a Clay Township Volunteer Fire Department station. The township stretches from Talley Road to State Road 9 and from County Road 100S to County Road 400N.
Acton paid the department only $12,500 of its expected annual allocation in 2011 and only $11,567 in 2012. Those funds cover necessities such as insurance, fuel, equipment and maintenance.
The amounts Acton paid were roughly the same amount the department pays annually just for workers’ compensation insurance, fire department secretary-treasurer Glenn Wakefield said.
The department usually requires $80,000 to $90,000 a year to operate, Assistant Fire Chief John Lipson said.
Besides funds paid through the trustee, the department also receives income from fundraisers and the United Way of Bartholomew County, Wakefield said.
Acton resigned under pressure as trustee in May 2012 after a State Board of Accounts audit alleged that from 2008 through 2010, she:
Used township money for personal expenses.
Was overpaid thousands of dollars.
Paid her husband’s mowing service unreasonable amounts of money.
Generally did a poor job of keeping records and filing reports.
Also, the township was penalized financially in 2012 by federal and state revenue agencies for not properly paying employees’ taxes.
“(Acton) really put the damper on everything we did,” Morgan said.
In June, the Indiana State Police announced it had finished an investigation of Acton but said no further information would be released unless criminal charges were filed.
A short time later, Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash filed a request for a special prosecutor. Cynthia Crispin, a retired deputy prosecutor for Hancock County, was named to fill that position.
“I’m just waiting for the lead Indiana State Police investigator, Rick Roseberry, to tie up a few loose ends,” Crispin said. “I expect I’ll be able to make my decisions shortly.”
After the consequences of Acton’s actions became public, township residents and firefighters sprang into action, Morgan said.
Wakefield and current Clay Township Trustee Becky Smith, both former deputies with the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department, have been instrumental in keeping the department solvent, Morgan said.
Smith and Wakefield meet at least once a month to sort out finances and establish spending limits. Updates are provided to firefighters during every department meeting, Morgan said.
The public has contributed its share, too. In 2012, township residents donated more than $22,000 to the fire department, with 68 percent of all contributions pledged during a late December fundraising effort, Wakefield said.
The journey back to fiscal health picked up steam this year. Instead of the normal two fish fries annually, the fire department has held five so far, with a sixth scheduled for Oct. 18 and 19.
Dozens of people stood outside the fire station near Petersville 10 minutes before the Sept. 13 fish fry began.
Thanks to increased community support, each fish fry now raises between $5,000 and $6,500, Wakefield said.
“(The public) saw we needed the help, stepped up to the plate and really helped us out,” Morgan said.
Patrons stuff a boot at every fundraising event that has, to date, brought in $8,000 for maintenance costs over the past year, Wakefield said.
Donors also have recently provided the department with two houses and three cars for training purposes.
Daniel Sigman, who has attended Clay Township fish fries for the past 23 years, believes that level of generosity shows his neighbors no longer take their local fire department for granted.
“They are always here to help out the community and close at hand in case you have an emergency,” Sigman said. “I live in this area. And if this fire department was gone, we’d be losing something valuable to us.”
“We’d have a lot of trouble without them,” added Clay Township resident Lance Chalfant.
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