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Judge: Man doesn't have to pay for fire district service

GROTON -- A judge has dismissed a pair of lawsuits filed against a rural Groton man who refused to pay bills from two fire districts after a fire at his farm.

As a result of the dismissal, Dwight Lawson, 49, will not have to pay a total of $11,539 he was billed after the Groton Area Fire Protection and Rescue District and the Aberdeen Rural Fire Protection District responded to a fire that destroyed his hay shed on Oct. 10, 2012.

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.

Fifth Circuit Judge Tony Portra granted Lawson's motions to dismiss the lawsuits in a three-page decision filed Monday, about two weeks after both sides met in a courtroom at the Brown County Courthouse in Aberdeen and presented their arguments.

Diane Cordaro, a former executive director of the South Dakota Association of Towns and Townships, served as a consultant for Lawson in the case.

"I wasn't surprised it was dismissed, but I never thought it would go this far in the first place," Cordaro said in an interview Friday with The Daily Republic.

Portra dismissed the two lawsuits because he found state law does not expressly grant fire districts the ability to bill for services, despite the fire districts' argument that language in the law was broad enough to allow them to bill.

Because the ability of fire districts to bill isn't clearly spelled out in state law, Portra concluded the Legislature was satisfied they could fund themselves solely through their ability to tax.

"There is no reason to imply further powers regarding funding that the Legislature did not specifically provide," he wrote.

Portra also noted a state law says anyone who burns land or other flammable materials without taking the proper precautions can be held liable for any damages caused by the fire and for the cost of putting it out.

"If a fire district can already bill the homeowner for the cost of its services regardless of the cause of origin, what is the purpose (of those state laws)," Portra wrote.

Tom Sannes, Lawson's attorney, said he was satisfied with the judge's ruling.

"I think the judge got it right," Sannes said in an interview Friday. "To us, the law is clear."

Sannes said the fire districts could still decide to appeal the judge's ruling after a formal judgment is filed in the near future.

Calls made Friday to Kari Bartling, a lawyer who represents both fire districts, were not immediately returned.