Committee Breaks Commitment To Local Finance Board (And Residents), November 24, 2014 Meeting Video Available

no-68481_640Township Committee continues to promise constructive, positive change and healing. But as usual with this Committee, what it does is different from what it says. At the November 24th meeting, the Committee introduced Ordinance 2014-8 to dissolve the Fire District, but said it has no plans to fulfill the other promises it has made to the Local Finance Board and residents.

Here’s a short list of what they’ve promised but haven’t delivered.

1. NO INVESTIGATION OR REPORT ON THE PLAN FOR FIRE SERVICES.

The Committee’s promise to do a “thorough” investigation and report is mentioned first because it’s essential. Any policy, particularly one as important as fire safety, should be based on a full understanding of what’s needed and how it should be provided. Sub-committee members Lee and Brown were given the responsibility to conduct a “thorough” investigation. But they did virtually nothing. Mayor Barton and Committeemen Franzen and Yates accepted their shallow and limited comments. With a foundation like this, it’s not surprising that the rest of the Committee’s actions show little purpose beyond the dismantling of the Fire District.

2. NO CENTRALIZED DELIVERY AND MANAGEMENT OF TOWNSHIP EMERGENCY SERVICES.

Township Committee has often promised that fire, rescue and the CERT would be centralized (CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Team). Centralization was the Committee’s way of healing the long-standing rift between these volunteers and providing comprehensive emergency services to residents. Centralization was first and foremost in the Committee’s application to the LFB to dissolve the Fire District. The first sentence in the Committee’s Executive Summary states this clearly.

The Tabernacle Township Committee finds that there is a need to centralize the delivery and management of all emergency services in order to promote the professional, efficient, cooperative and effective delivery of all emergency services in the Township (Local Finance Board Application, June 16, 2014).

As part of its application, the Township submitted an ordinance to the LFB in order to demonstrate how it would accomplish this “professional, efficient, cooperative and effective delivery of all emergency services.” The ordinance included provisions for the Township to enter into a contract with the volunteer fire fighters and the Tabernacle Rescue Squad.

The exact same ordinance was on the agenda for first reading at the November 24th meeting. By motion of Committee members Franzen and Brown, the Committee voted to delete the provision to contract with the Rescue Squad and deleted the creation of an Office of Emergency Management, which would contain CERT.

As Committee members Franzen and Brown tried to convince Committeeman Lee and Mayor Barton that the Ordinance should be changed to treat the volunteer firefighters differently from the volunteer Rescue Squad, Committeeman Stephen Lee, pointed out that they had all previously agreed on the idea of contracting with both volunteer organizations. Here’s what Mr. Lee said:

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at this. This is something we’ve all talked about (Recording, November 24, 2014).

Ultimately, the Committee decided to contract only with volunteer firefighters. There will be no centralized Office of Emergency Management and the Tabernacle Rescue Squad will continue as it currently is. With the adoption of Ordinance 2014-8, the Committee will break its commitment that it would create a centralized program for emergency services. The public hearing is December 8, 2014.

After having repeatedly explained to residents how important it was to reconcile differences between the Tabernacle Rescue Squad and the firefighters, and having represented to the LFB that contracting with both volunteer groups was necessary for the provision of emergency services, it was astounding to see the Committee’s retreat, yet again, from what they said they would do. The Committee’s reasons for changing the Ordinance are transparently bogus. If they truly believed that the best plan for Tabernacle was to contract only with the firefighters, they should have realized it months ago (after their “thorough” sub-committee investigation) and submitted their application to the LFB accordingly.

Throughout the past year, the Committee’s lack of concern for the firefighters has been just below the surface but easy to see (see November 23, 2014 Post “Tabernacle Fire District Dissolved,” Section B). This was demonstrated again at the meeting when Committeewoman Brown had to remind Committeeman Franzen to thank the firefighters for their participation during the recent Tabernacle tragedy (see video at 47:08-12).

3. NO PLAN FOR FIRE TRUCK.

The LFB asked if the Township would buy the truck. Committeewoman Kim Brown told the Local Finance Board that it would. But, at the November 24th meeting, Township Attorney Peter Lange said that the Committee didn’t commit to buying the truck that Chief Smith recommended and the voters approved. The Committee was asked what its plans were. Mayor Barton then said they would discuss the truck purchase after the District was dissolved. The other Committee members said nothing.

The rumor is that the Committee is looking again at the 1994 Moorestown truck. Fire Chief Dave Smith and District Commissioners have already said this truck was unacceptable for Tabernacle.

4. NO PLAN TO HAVE ENOUGH VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTERS.

It’s common sense that a volunteer firefighting program depends on volunteers. Obviously, the Committee, through its “thorough” sub-committee investigation, should have met with the firefighters and discussed all of their concerns, including volunteerism. Then, they would have had some idea of how to develop an effective plan. But Committee members Lee and Brown never met with firefighters until last month, after the LFB had approved the plan for dissolution. Notwithstanding the Sub-committee’s failure to talk with the volunteers, concerned firefighters told the Committee numerous times that the response rate had dropped by more than 50%.

At the LFB hearing on November 12th, Fire Chief Dave Smith said that they have plenty of firefighters and if they don’t, they will rely on mutual aid. Yet, since 2012, when he became Chief of the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company, he has been unable to increase the number of volunteer firefighters. He reported in April 2014, that Medford Farms had two recruitment programs that produced only one new member in 2013 and only one in 2014. Official minutes contain the following account:

Chief Smith stated there was a membership drive in 2013. Several members joined, went to school, and dropped out. There is one new member left. There is a program presented at Seneca High School every year, but no one has taken the opportunity to join the Fire Company. Some new members are new residents that transfer their membership from their old township (Minutes, Tabernacle Township Board of Fire Commissioners, p.10).

At the Township meeting on November 24th, Mayor Barton said that he didn’t have a plan to increase the number of volunteer firefighters but would rely on the fire company to increase membership. Here’s what Mayor Barton said:

At this time we have an ordinance that is going to 2nd reading, once the ordinance passed we’ll contract with a fire company and we would expect that company would advertise for volunteers and solicit volunteers (Recording, November 24, 2014).

Dave Smith is the Chief of both volunteer fire companies in Tabernacle (Medford Farms and Tabernacle No. 1). The Committee will be relying on him to get new members regardless of which company it contracts with. Because Dave Smith’s past efforts to “advertise and solicit” volunteers have been so unsuccessful, Mayor Barton’s expectations are unjustifiable. He and the other Committee members are proceeding on blind faith that the firefighters, especially those that actually enter burning buildings, will participate.

5. NO PLAN FOR LOSAP (Length of Service Awards Program).

LOSAP is a program that provides a tax-deferred payment to emergency service volunteers based on their length of service. Currently, volunteer firefighters get LOSAP, but the Tabernacle Rescue Squad volunteers do not. At the LFB hearing, the Township said that it would continue the LOSAP program. But the cost of the program was not included in the Township’s calculation of savings. However, when asked at the Township meeting what their LOSAP program would be and whether it would be expanded to cover the firefighters and the Tabernacle Rescue Squad, the Committee said that it would continue with LOSAP, but wouldn’t say whether it would be offered to the firefighters and the Rescue Squad.

6. NO PUBLIC COMMENT.

At the first public comment period on agenda items only, the Committee throttled the public by prohibiting all comment on the Ordinance to dissolve the District. The Committee has always allowed comment on all agenda items. But this one, in their eyes, is different. Township Attorney Peter Lange explained that the Committee was “marshaling the agenda.” In my years of attending these meetings, I’ve never seen anyone express a need or interest in “marshaling the agenda.” Residents would be better served if the Committee would marshal its efforts to do what they promise.

There are too many other examples of this Committee promising one thing and doing another or just not doing anything at all. Here are a few examples:

  • No placement of the Resolution to Dissolve the Fire District on the April 28, 2014 meeting agenda (Mayor Barton: “…we will have it on the agenda, it will be noticed, you’ll see it….”);
  • No policy authorizing use of the wash bay facility by volunteers;
  • No policy for redaction of public records prior to their release;
  • No audio or video recordings on official website.