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Wabash trustee: Hard no on township offer, full-time firefighters still will be laid off
With layoffs looming for three full-time firefighters, Wabash Township's board came up with a plan to save the jobs. A day later, Trustee Jennifer Teising said layoffs were still happening
Less than a day after saying she’d look into a funding plan Wabash Township Advisory Board members came up with to save the jobs of the township’s three paid firefighters, Trustee Jennifer Teising landed on a decision, based on a string of emails Wednesday.
Boiled down: That’s a hard no.
“First, let me be clear that the full-time paid staff positions are ending as previously stated,” Teising wrote to township board members Wednesday afternoon, a day after a heated public meeting at the township fire department.
In the email, obtained here and confirmed by township board member Angel Valentin, Teising argued that the township’s attempt Tuesday to give her latitude to move $500,000 from a capital fund for the fire department – one that typically pays for large equipment, including trucks – to a line item for salary, benefits and other operations over the next two years skirted open meeting laws.
Teising claimed the three-member board was out of line and acting dishonestly to paint her in a bad way and had “created a toxic and hostile environment.”
“Being dishonest to the public for theater to create a false sense of outrage is a disgrace!” Teising wrote. “Political theater and using the fire department personnel as pawns is completely unacceptable. …
“Regardless, the board does not have any spending authority in the township,” she wrote. “This is the responsibility of the trustee, which you have recognized in our meetings.”
Bottom line: She didn’t plan to use the money. And the three paid firefighters – ones hired after she championed a tax-funded, 2020 emergency loan that brought in $440,000 to help expand paid firefighters in an otherwise volunteer force – would still be finished as of June 29.
Valentin said the board stood behind the move, one they insisted had the blessing of state budget officials. Teising’s point stood: The resolution giving the trustee the authority to move money between fire department funds came up as a last-minute item during a Tuesday night township board meeting, with little, if any, advance notice. Valentin said that was something the board could correct at a later meeting.
His point: The board was trying to give Teising the funding she needed through 2023, not to mention a way to de-escalate a fight that had residents in the township just west of West Lafayette angrily wondering whether their fire protection was about to be compromised by the trustee’s maneuvers.
“Ms. Teising chooses not to recognize a life jacket when one is thrown to her,” Valentin said. “This is further confirmation of her inability, or lack of desire, to carry out her duties as township trustee. She's taking the township down a path that could have deadly consequences. …
“We're exploring all the options on the table for the good of our constituents, so that we may offer proper fire protection,” Valentin said. “However, if she follows through with her plan and someone dies, their death will be on her hands.”
Teising did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
Teising has been at odds with her board for months, after they questioned whether she was still living in the township after she sold her West Lafayette home in June 2020. The board called for her to resign earlier this year. The chairwoman of the Democratic Party called on her to do the same thing.
Teising has shrugged off those demands, even after she was charged with 20 counts of theft, stemming from accusations that she collected biweekly paychecks while she lived outside the township. That case is scheduled for a trial in late July.
Teising insisted during a contentious public meeting Tuesday night – one she attended remotely, via Zoom – that she’d tried to come up with long-term plans to stabilize funding for the fire department without relying on emergency loans or one-time gimmicks, like the one the township board offered. But she claimed she’d been undercut in the process by township and county officials who wouldn’t commit to help create a fire district that would have the chance to provide sustainable revenue.
“I will not be irresponsible and move this problem down the road to the next administration,” Teising said, referring to the transfer idea, meant to buy time to figure out a better way in the next two years. “That is how we got here in the first place!”
Teising’s relationship with firefighters has been rocky. She’s fired two chiefs since coming into office in January 2019. And firefighters said the number of volunteers had dropped in that time from between 35 and 40 at the start of 2019 to 20 now, Assistant Chief Jim Lewis said Tuesday night.
Teising and board members agreed that there was money in this year’s budget to keep the firefighters on. But Teising was pushing a plan to replace the paid firefighters with a rotation of part-timers pulled from the volunteer force.
Residents at the Wabash Township Fire Station roundly booed that idea Tuesday night.
In three hours of public comment, no speaker defended Teising or took her side. Each of the township board members openly hoped that the judicial system would take care of the problem and make Teising ineligible for office. Beyond that, they said they were ready for a rough ride between now and the November 2022 elections, when the trustee’s position would be on the ballot.
Ed Ward, who was fired as chief in late 2020, said the news hit hard Wednesday.
“Absolutely unreal, man,” Ward said. “It’s truly nauseating and proves that it’s not about the money and more about trying to prove a point.
“The guys aren’t taking it great,” Ward said. “For once they were able to see a glimmer of hope at last night’s meeting only to have it destroyed today. I just don’t understand the games. It’s people’s lives, people’s careers, people’s families. She just doesn’t care.”
Valentin said there’s still time for Teising to pull back from the ledge in the next two weeks and keep the firefighters until there was time to develop another plan.
“The resolution sits there, waiting for her to do her job and upload it,” Valentin said. “Once she does her job, there will be money available to fund the department through 2023. …
“I hope that she will choose to do the right thing for once.”
Last ride home for WLFD Chief Tim Heath
Here’s palate cleanser after so much fire department drama.
Monday afternoon, West Lafayette firefighters delivered former Chief Tim Heath home, with one last ride on WLFD Engine 1501, which took him past the city’s three fire stations. Heath retired after 31 years with the department and the past decade as chief, as he and his family head to San Antonio for a job there.
Jeff Need, former WLFD deputy chief, was sworn in as chief on Friday.
The department caught the moment Heath was dropped off at his house. Nice work.
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