Volunteer Firefighters’ Equipment Seized In Financial Dispute

GARDNER, Ill. (CBS) — An entire fire department in Grundy County has been effectively shut down, all because of a fight over money.

Last week, a Grundy County judge ordered the sheriff to seize the property of the Gardner Volunteer Fire Department and return it to the Gardner Fire Protection District, amid a dispute about who controls the department’s funds and equipment.

CBS 2’s Pamela Jones went to find out what the fuss was about, and how dangerous the situation is.

Gardner, Ill. – located about 60 miles southwest of Chicago – might look like a quiet village, but a fire has been smoldering there for the past several days.

Annette Aichele, who has been a volunteer firefighter for 17 years, said, “It’s devastating. It’s horrible. There’s no words to describe it.”

Veterans from the Gardner Volunteer Fire Department said they’re watching that agency come apart piece by piece.

Its vehicles and equipment, right down to the popcorn machine, have been seized by the sheriff. The volunteer firefighters also have been stripped of their ability to serve.

“We were given a directive from the Grundy County dispatch, that if any of our firefighters responded to an emergency call, and interfered with what was going on, we would be arrested,” Gardner Fire Department Chief Randy Wilkey said.

Fire Protection District trustees have alleged the department misspent funds.

Barbara Baker, the secretary for the district’s board of trustees, said more than $47,000 in spending is unaccounted for from 2007 to 2010.

“That’s a lot of money for a small town like this,” she said.

Baker said much of that money was charged to a credit card firefighters used for dinners, and other expenses they wouldn’t explain.

Gary Morris, the board’s president, said they simply wanted the department to show them the bills for their spending.

“Show us the copy of the original bill and we’ll pay it. It’s not a problem. They refused to give us a copy of the original bill,” he said.

Volunteer firefighters questioned whether the fight over receipts, dollars, and political power will end up risking residents’ safety.

“It would take maybe 10 minutes for another department to come in and help; and minutes could cost somebody their life,” Aichele said.

The volunteers also said they worry the trustees’ plan to get help from surrounding towns to fight fires might take too long in some cases.

However, the district has hired help from a private ambulance service, and will get mutual aid from neighboring suburbs to respond to fire calls — a common practice in suburbs and small towns that sometimes don’t have enough equipment of their own to respond to large fires.

The alleged misappropriation of funds also includes questions of conflict of interest, when department funds were allegedly used to challenge an election ballot for candidates running for the fire protection district.

The volunteers claim there was no misappropriation of funds. They argue the department acts as a corporation, and can spend its funds as it sees fit.

Although a judge ordered the seizure of the equipment, the case will still have to be heard in court.

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