FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) - Township trustee is a political office not often given much attention. But, one week from the primary election, the race in St. Joseph Township in Allen County is turning heads.
A whopping 21 people are on the ballot this primary in St. Joseph Township. Four candidates are running for the trustee job and 17 people are trying to be one of the three township board members. That's more than double the number of candidates in any of the other 18 Allen County townships having elections this May.
Republican Incumbent Sarah Gnagy was elected trustee in 2014 and is finishing her first term. She was on the township board from 2011-2014.
Republican David Ringer has been the St. Joseph Township fire chief for six years.
Republican Jeremy Bush is a Fort Wayne firefighter and president of the firefighter union, IAFF Local 124.
Democrat Carol Griffin is a former chaplain for the township and retired music teacher.
Even though she's unopposed in the primary, Griffin's been very vocal, naming problems she sees in the township.
Griffin and Bush both take issue with the trustee salary at nearly $50,000 a year.
"That's been gradual recommendations she gave to the board and they said ok," Griffin said.
Gnagy said while she approved one salary increase as a board member right before she was elected trustee, and she gave the board recommendations as trustee, she did not give herself a raise.
"The township board approves salaries and budgets, so when I was on the board i approved those salaries and as trustee you don't approve those salaries," she said. "I brought them three percent [and they made it more]."
Gnagy's father was the trustee when she was on the board and voted to increase the trustee salary and her mother, Jean Uhrick, was on the board when Gnagy was trustee and the board increased the salary again.
15 Finds Out asked if it's a family affair to give each other raises.
"That's very unfair. She's one out of three along with John McKay and Joel Flaningan. It was a united front," Gnagy said.
Gnagy said the initial pay increase in 2014 was based on a comparison study of what trustees made in similar-sized townships.
"St. Joe was woefully, woefully underpaid," she said.
15 Finds Out looked at the the trustee salaries in each of the 20 townships in Allen County. While St. Joseph is second to Wayne Township as the highest paid, it is far from being the highest salary per constituent in the township. It's actually the second lowest dollar amount per person living in the township.
While the township assistance hours posted online are just 14 hours a week, Gnagy says the trustee position is a full-time job.
"I'm there after that time and on opposite days. I'm there in the evening a lot too because citizens want to come in after 5 p.m. It's sometimes 40-plus hours a week," she said.
Bush said he would take a lower salary if he's elected trustee.
"I would donate 25 percent of the salary at a minimum for first four years and I'd get an attorney's opinion on it and if we can lower it, we'd look at that. There are three positions I'd look at. More than 50 percent of the budget is going to administrative costs and that's seems out of whack to me," Bush said.
Fire Chief David Ringer also makes around $50,000 a year.
"For fulltime money, I think a certain amount of hours per week someone should be stationed [at the fire station] and responding to the community," Bush said.
Ringer said he doesn't punch a clock at the station because he's always on call.
FIRE CHIEF VEHICLE
Ringer's take-home chief vehicle also raised some questions. Every time 15 Finds Out drove by the fire station over the last two months, it wasn't there. Ringer said he's allowed to drive the township SUV all the time, because he could get a call at any moment.
Tips to 15 Finds Out said Ringer uses his township vehicle while working for his other businesses.
"I was told to be with that vehicle all the time to respond at any time," he said.
Gnagy confimed that was the agreement.
"He took care of gas and maintenance, so I allowed him to use that vehicle within the township. Going forward, I'm changing that. We'll have a gas card and a mileage log," she said. :In the last 6 months, I see that's changed and I'm taking control of those assets."
Gnagy wouldn't elaborate on what's changed to prompt the change in policy.
"Last week I got an email that I have to start reporting mileage every week, which is fine. I just might take a day off now," Ringer said.
While Griffin said the vehicle should stay at the fire department to be used on calls, Bush understands sometimes needing an on-call vehicle.
"But it provides a level of concern when you're responding across the city or halfway across the city to an emergency incident. In my opinion it's not the right thing," he said.
As the on-call chief, Ringer said he responds to nearly every call in the township.
"There's a joke in the county that I'm always there. I'm on every call," he said.
Through a public records request, Griffin said there were 542 calls for service in 2017. Of those, 16 percent were fire runs, 16 percent were both fire and EMS and 73 percent were EMS only calls.
"He is not qualified. He has not passed the test for EMT and other's he's taken," Griffen said.
RInger was named fire chief by Gnagy's predecessor, who was also her father, and as trustee she renewed his contract.
"I was told by the previous administration that he took the test and passed the test and we even paid for the class," Gnagy said. "You aren't required to have [EMS certification] but it's a good thing to have."
"If the trustee wants me to get certified, then the trustee can say we're changing the policy," Ringer said.
Ringer said he did take a test for Emergency Medical Responder (EMR) certifications but did not retake it when he didn't pass.
"I was busy," he said. "I'm man enough to say I probably should be [certified], and not to make an excuse, but I've been busy trying to start a volunteer reorganization from scratch and that's hard."
In 2011, the township decided to disband ambulance service and contract with TRAA. It kept the fire department in a volunteer format.
"98 percent of the time, TRAA arrives first or they're right on my heels," Ringer said. "Sometimes we do arrive first and we might question [the patient] on medical history. You don't just open the door and start medical care, there's a process. We really don't do medical care. We just don't right now."
The Fort Wayne Fire Department also does not run an ambulance service and the city contracts with TRAA. But, every firefighter still has to be medically certified.
"If someone sees a fire truck show up, they are expecting those persons to get off and take care of the situation. Showing up and saying they don't have the certification or this ability or tools, that's just not something firefighters say," Bush said.
Ringer added that while he's not an EMT, other volunteers on the department are and so far in 2018, only 6 out of 137 runs did not have a St. Joe medic on scene.
Going forward, Gnagy said she would require the fire chief to be medically certified. 15 Finds Out asked Gnagy if she would keep Ringer as fire chief if she's elected trustee again, and she said she would "have to take a look at that."
His current contract expires in December 2018. Ringer told 15 Finds Out that he was informed by Gnagy's office that if he doesn't win the trustee race, his chief contract would not be extended. He said he wouldn't have wanted to keep the job anyway if he doesn't win trustee.
Gnagy is concerned that if Ringer is elected trustee, he'd be his own boss. A recent change in state law allows him to be trustee and stay fire chief.
"It's created a perfect storm," she said. "You can sit as fire chief, you can sit as trustee. you can sit as head of fire board and you appoint the fire board members. It's complete monopoly, total control and not good for St. Joe Township."
"A lot of the conflict has been with the trustee and fire chief for whatever reason, budgeting, personnel, and iId like to alleviate that. Maybe it's doing away with a chief and have an operations chief and a fire board active and make decisions. I don't have all the answers and I'm open to boards," Ringer said.
Bush said he wanted to bring EMS coverage back to the township by redistributing the budget. He also wants to create a live-in program to have first responders in the firehouse around the clock.
Gnagy worries changing fire and EMS service will take away from other township assistance programs.
"There are 75,000 people in the township and 6,500 are in the unincorporated area. We provide fire and ambulance service to the unincorporated area. We have full services from TRAA at no cost to the township and have state-of-the-art equipment, especially for a volunteer fire department. Those people are very well covered out there," Gnagy said.
The trustees office also provides help to the impoverished and those dealing with a tragedy or emergency.
"I take care of citizens in need. We buy the indigent and help people who meet the guidelines. If they don't we refer them. They used to call trustees the 'oversee-ers of the poor.' That's what we are," Gnagy said.
The winner of the republican primary race between Bush, Gnagy and Ringer will face Griffin in November's election. The primary election is May 8.