GARDNER — The court has sided with the Gardner Fire Protection District in its battle with the Gardner Volunteer Fire Department for control over bank accounts and equipment.
Grundy County Judge Robert Marsaglia ordered Wednesday for Grundy County Sheriff Terry Marketti, a former district trustee and current adviser to the district board, to seize the property of the department and deliver it to the district.
"The judge gave (the department) until Tuesday to come up with a bond to keep the equipment. If not, the sheriff's department will take control of the equipment," Marketti said.
"If they do (obtain the bond), then they will have to go to court, and the judge will have some more decisions to make," he continued.
A call to the cellphone of Gardner Fire Department Chief Randy Wilkey was not returned before press time.
According to the court order, the assets the district will obtain if the department does not come through with a bond include a 1990 Ford Tanker; 2010 Ford Ambulance; 1994 Ford Brush; 1978 Pierce Aerial; 2006 Sutphen Pumper; 1987 Ford Pumper; 2009 Ford Expedition; a riding lawn mower; office equipment; any assets purchased with Tax Increment Finance District Funds or tax revenues; bank accounts controlled by or in the department's name; all emergency and firefighting equipment; and other personal property of the department.
Marketti said the sheriff's department already has control of the department's funds.
In a previous Morris Daily Herald article, Wilkey maintained the department is a separate entity of the fire district and provides a contracted service to the district for fire and EMS service.
The district terminated its contract with the district, and that has been being disputed in court.
Earlier this year, the fire district passed a resolution no longer recognizing Wilkey as chief because it does not trust him with the department's finances. As a result, Wilkey is no longer insured by the district, nor is included on the firemen roster, but the district cannot do more because the equipment is in the department's name, not the district's.
"It doesn't mean anything. They are having a hard time digesting they don't control the Gardner Volunteer Fire Department," Wilkey said in February. "We are a separate, legal entity from the district. I am elected by the firemen and firewomen on the fire department. They have stood by me through all this, and all of them made a commitment if I leave, they leave."
By Tuesday, if the department has not secured their own bond, the district's newly appointed chief, Terry Jensen, will take over.
"The district will take over the equipment and total operations that day and have their chief and a plan in place to take over fire and EMS," Marketti said.
If the current fire personnel leave, Jensen has enough personnel "to take over immediately so there should not be any loss of service to the community," Marketti said.
MISUSE OF FUNDS
The whole battle between the district and department started when Wilkey refused to give the district board original receipts to pay the department's bills, according to previous statements by district representatives and Wilkey.
Eventually, when Wilkey refused to give originals, the district refused to pay the bills. This led to the feud going to court.
The district trustees maintained they were elected by the people to make sure taxpayer monies was being spent correctly.
Wilkey said previously that because the department is a separate corporation, once the fire department receives the revenue from the tax levy, the monies are no longer public funds and are spent per the department's budget, not how the district tells the department to spend the funds. And he said the department needed the original receipts for its audit.
In a court order filed Monday, the judge stated the fire district would probably prevail, proving the department had misappropriated funds when it used department money to challenge an election ballot for candidates running for the Gardner Fire Protection District.
"Clearly, the use of government funds to fund a litigation to remove persons from a ballot to directly influence an election would be misappropriation of funds," the order states.
The district argued the use of department funds to pay for "restaurant and bar tabs" was also a misappropriation. The court did not support the use of department funds for alcohol, but said it was not a misappropriation since the corporate purpose of the non-for-profit includes "To foster and cultivate the social, educational and business relationship of the members and to hold festivals and other entertainment," according to the order.
"The district has been trying to get their cooperation and provide them with clear transparency of their expenditures, as well as the money they take in for years now, and they failed to do it, so they went to court," Marketti said.
"As expected, they were misusing funds in a manner they shouldn't have been," he continued. "They left the district no choice, and the trustees were elected to make sure money was spent properly, and that's what they are doing."