Fighting fire with funds: Groton men battle bills from fire district
GROTON -- Dwight Lawson woke up to the sound of his phone ringing.
He answered. Then, he listened as a neighbor told him his hay shed was on fire.
By the time he arrived at his hay shed, located down the road from his home on a farm in rural Groton, firefighters were already there trying to extinguish the blaze, which he described as "a red beam of fire."
It was shortly before 11:30 p.m., Oct. 10, 2012, and Lawson, 49, watched as his hay shed, along with his winter hay supply, went up in flames. After more than an hour of fighting the fire, the Groton Fire Department called the Aberdeen Rural Fire Department for help.
But the combined efforts of the two fire departments couldn't save the building, and it was declared a total loss. Hay inside the building smoldered through the night and into the morning, until Lawson buried it to prevent any other fires from starting in nearby farm fields.
"Once that gets going, it's kind of like gasoline," Lawson said of smoldering hay, in an interview this week with The Daily Republic.
No cause for the fire was officially determined. Lawson estimates the value of the building he lost at $80,000, and the value of the hay inside at $150,000. But the cost of the fire didn't end there.
A few weeks passed, then bills started to come, asking Lawson to pay thousands of dollars to the Groton Area Fire Protection and Rescue District, and the Aberdeen Rural Fire Protection District for the response to his fire. Each time a bill arrived, Lawson sent it on to his insurance company. Lawson soon learned his insurance company's limit for fire response was just $500, far short of the thousands of dollars being sought.
That he was billed at all for the response to his fire was troubling, because a portion of his property taxes already help fund the fire protection district, Lawson said.
"I wasn't happy. Not when I'm already paying taxes," he said.
Lawson's property is within the boundaries of the Groton Area Fire Protection and Rescue District, which levies a property tax to pay for fire protection within the district.
In August 2013, Lawson received another letter asking for him to pay $11,539 -- $8,804 to the Groton Area Fire Protection and Rescue District and $2,735 to the Aberdeen Rural Fire Protection District. This time, though, the letter was from Kari Bartling, a lawyer with Kolker Law Office in Groton, who represents both districts.
Lawson responded in a letter, and referred Bartling to his insurance company, and noted his property taxes are used to fund the fire protection district. Then, Lawson was sued for both amounts in separate cases in small claims court in Brown County.
The case was moved from small claims court and, in May, lawsuits were filed against Lawson in Brown County Circuit Court. In a pair of one-page complaints, the two fire protection districts ask for a judgement against Lawson in, again, the combined amount of $11,539.
Lawson and his lawyer, Thomas L. Sannes, of Webster, have asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit. In a brief filed in June, Sannes argues the districts do not have the power to bill for services and instead should raise the money needed to operate by levying taxes, or by borrowing money.
"In fact, charging for services goes directly against the purpose of the district," the brief says. "Just like a school district, the public purpose of the district is to be provided by establishing a budget and levying taxes to fund that purpose."
Sannes, in the brief, says emergency services provided by a government entity are not charged.
"For example, if a police officer is called to a home on a call, the individual making the call is not billed," the brief says.
Last week, both sides met in a courtroom at the Brown County Courthouse in Aberdeen, where Fifth Circuit Judge Tony Portra heard arguments for and against the motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Portra has yet to issue a decision on the matter.
Bartling, the districts' lawyer, declined to comment on the case when contacted this week by The Daily Republic.
Bob Osterman, board president for the Groton Area Fire Protection and Rescue District, did not respond to The Daily Republic's multiple requests for comment for this story.
Before the case went to court, a friend put Lawson in contact with Diane Cordaro, a former executive director of the South Dakota Association of Towns and Townships. She began working as a consultant for Lawson.
In an interview this week with The Daily Republic, Cordaro said Lawson's case is not unique. In her own research, Cordaro said she found numerous instances within the last few years of others in being billed after a fire by the Groton Area Fire Protection and Rescue District, with amounts ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.
"For some reason, they appear to only target a few people who refuse to pay," she said.
Greg Belden, who farms east of Groton, had a rotary mower malfunction and start a grass fire in October 2012. He was later billed about $7,000. Belden, like Lawson, was surprised to receive a bill.
"I was under the assumption that was the reason we paid taxes to a fire district, so that they were covered and they were paid to do it, and we weren't liable," he said. "It just kind of blew me away."
Belden's case has been moved from small claims court but, with Lawson's case pending, has not been refiled in circuit court, Belden said.
"I would like to see everybody that's ever paid them get a check back from them," he said.
According to an annual financial report, the Groton Area Fire Protection and Rescue District collected $200,588.17 from its tax levy last year, and $10,995.20 from fire call collections. It also spent $4,883.71 on legal services. At the end of last year, the district had a total cash balance of $129,267.94.
It's unclear, Cordaro said, exactly how the amounts billed for fire protection are determined, because it's never discussed in open session at the district's board meetings, and no motions are made following the closed executive sessions.
"You read their minutes and there is nothing about why they bill and don't bill," she said.
In an interview this week with The Daily Republic, State Auditor General Marty Guindon, who heads the South Dakota Department of Legislative Audit, said he does not believe fire protection districts are allowed to bill for their services because its not a power expressly given to them in state law. Guindon was quick to note his opinion is not a legal one.
There are at least 57 fire protection districts in the state, according to a list generated on the South Dakota Secretary of State's website.
A state law allows fire protection districts to charge certain tax-exempt organizations for fire protection on an annual basis, Guindon noted.
"Since we're giving them that authority, it seems to imply that's not how everybody pays," he said.
Guindon said Legislative Audit has the authority to audit fire protection districts, but would need a compelling reason, such as a request from the district or a serious complaint, to do so. All fire protection districts are required to file an annual financial report with a county auditor, but are not subject to routine audits.
It's been nearly two years since Lawson's hay shed burned to the ground. Now, the only visible sign of the fire is a slightly disturbed patch of ground near a new hay shed, where smoldering hay was buried to keep the flames from spreading.
There is little Lawson can do now but wait for the judge to make a decision in his case. In the meantime, he stands by his decision to challenge the district's charges.
"If there was a law that said I have to pay, I would pay it," he said.