Public Safety Troubles

The air went out of the Committee’s July 26, 2021 meeting when discussions revealed that emergency services still isn’t right, despite the committee’s so-called extensive study of fire services and its creation of its own volunteer fire department.

The establishment of the new Tabernacle fire department is the committee’s third major change to emergency services in eight years. In that period, Tabernacle has had three different fire companies and the management of the fire companies changed from an independent fire commission to the township itself. In contrast, the Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS) has remained an independent and self-managed volunteer company. However, it now has a contract with the township to provide ambulance and rescue services to Tabernacle.

It was everyone’s hope that the new Tabernacle Fire Department would be successful and overcome the problems that the committee was certain existed, but never discussed. So far as we know, volunteer fire fighters continue to serve Tabernacle admirably.

The first problem to surface at the July 26, meeting was that the fire company has no secretaries. Ordinarily, and for all of Tabernacle’s past volunteer fire companies, company volunteers did the secretarial work.

No explanation was given for why the current volunteer fire company isn’t providing volunteer secretaries like all previous volunteer companies had. Mayor Brown, and Committeemen Moore and Sunbury, voted against finding out the reason.

Also, no explanation was given for why the township’s recently adopted plan to reform fire services didn’t address secretarial services. The short explanation is that the committee members who made the plan did a lousy job. It doesn’t take much experience or investigation to figure out that emergency service providers need secretaries. Every previous Tabernacle fire company had secretaries. The Tabernacle Rescue Squad probably has them too. Why didn’t the committee figure this out?

Mayor Brown and Deputy Mayor Sammy Moore comprised the subcommittee that examined fire services and recommended the creation of the new fire company. Mr. Moore is also the committee’s official liaison to the TRS and fire company. His experience and expertise in emergency services, particularly fire services, is the reason why he was on the subcommittee.

When the subcommittee reported their conclusions to the committee they said they did a thorough investigation and conducted extensive interviews to fully understand how fire services operated and how the new fire department should be set up.

If subcommittee members Brown and Moore did half as good a job as they said they did, they would have understood that the new township fire company needed secretaries. And they would have recommended how those secretarial services should be provided.

Surely they discussed the new fire department with Township Administrator Doug Cramer. He’s a seasoned administrator and has many years of direct experience with the administrative and secretarial needs of the prior fire company. He managed Tabernacle’s contract with the previous company after the township dissolved the Fire District, and assumed the District’s responsibilities in December 2013. As administrator and contract manager, Mr. Cramer worked regularly and directly with the prior fire company’s secretary. He knows that fire companies need secretaries. Was the subcommittee so deficient that they didn’t ask Mr. Cramer about office staff for the new company?

The subcommittee also worked with the prior fire company, Tabernacle Fire Company #1 (TFC1), to assess its needs. Indeed, the old company pledged to work closely with the township and help with the transition to the new company. Surely, the subcommittee members had many conversations with the TFC1 secretary. Was the subcommittee so deficient that they didn’t collect information about secretarial needs of the new company?

After the new fire plan was adopted, Committeeman Sunbury replaced Mayor Brown on the subcommittee to search for a fire chief. Again the subcommittee reported that they examined the matter closely and conducted many detailed interviews to thoroughly understand the matter. They recommended Keith Zane for chief and the committee accepted their recommendation.

When Mr. Zane was offered the position, he requested a stipend because he would be doing the administrative work. Mr. Moore reported that this was a reasonable request. That stipend was then split, at Chief Zane’s recommendation, with the Deputy Fire Chief Gajderowicz. How could there be discussion of administrative work, but not secretarial work?

Did the subcommittee members just bungle this basic organizational requirement? There is an alternative explanation.

Perhaps Mayor Brown, Mr. Moore and Mr. Cramer always intended to hire a full-time secretary for fire services and that secretary would also be used for the Public Works Department. After all, Administrator Cramer is also the Director of Tabernacle’s Department of Public Works. He’d welcome the additional position.

Adding a new, full-time secretary is an extra cost for taxpayers. It’s not just the salary, it’s also the cost of medical benefits, pension, supplies and other overhead. And if it made sense to hire a new secretary, did it ever make sense to pay a stipend to Chief Zane and the Deputy Fire Chief for administrative work. If these costs were known upfront, committee members may have voted differently.

By omitting all mention of secretarial needs and costs from their recommendation, (and by not issuing a written report), the subcommittee buried this issue for a later day. It wasn’t even mentioned during budget deliberations. Though, the budget deliberations this year were obscenely sparse regardless.

The reveal of the new township fire secretary position came on July 26, 2021, when Mayor Brown and Administrator Cramer announced that, suddenly, there was this unanticipated need for secretarial services at the new fire company.

At the meeting, Committeeman Joseph Barton sparred with Mayor Brown over the fact that she and Administrator Cramer were now asking taxpayers to hire a new township secretary. He reminded the committee that the prior volunteer companies had always provided volunteer secretarial staff. He questioned why the new volunteer fire company wasn’t providing them. He cautioned that this new hire would be a new and recurring township expense.

For all of these reasons, he called for a new subcommittee to examine this unanticipated “need” for a secretary.

Mr. Barton’s idea to get to the facts was joined by Committeewoman McGinnis. But it was voted down by Mayor Brown, Deputy Mayor Moore and Committeeman Robert Sunbury. They have become the new block of three that controls the vote.

In explaining their vote to not get the facts, Mr. Moore and Mr. Sunbury said that if Mr. Cramer said there was a need for a new secretary, that was good enough for them.

This explanation was a low point. Mr. Moore and Mr. Sunbury were members of the subcommittee. They were charged to gather all relevant facts and make recommendations to the committee. Either they failed at figuring out the fire company’s secretarial needs or they failed at reporting it back to the committee. Now, they were deferring to Mr. Cramer, who knew all along that secretaries were needed and that all previous volunteer fire companies supplied their own secretaries.

Having failed to exercise independent thought when Committeemen Moore and Sunbury were on the subcommittees, they were now failing to exercise independent thought as committee members. They simply deferred to Mr. Cramer.

But the discussion went further downhill from there. The lowest point came as Mayor Brown tried to drum up the votes for the new secretarial position. She tried to explain that this was just a procedural vote. Even if the committee voted to create the new position now, she said, it didn’t mean they actually had to hire a new secretary.

How hypocritical and disingenuous is that!? Even Doug Cramer readily admitted that the position was being created to hire a new secretary for Fire and Public Works, and he’d hire one as soon as he could.

The vote against the Barton proposal to explore this inexplicably unanticipated ‘need’ is another rotten spot in the committee’s decision making for the new fire company. Add it to the list of other rotten spots, which include not issuing a written subcommittee report. A written report would have allowed other committee members and the public to ask focused questions like, “How are secretaries being provided?”

If the subcommittee actually didn’t have plans for a fire secretary because they were inept, well, that just shows their limitations.

If the subcommittee was intentionally silent about the fire companies secretarial needs in order pressure the committee to hire a new employee, that’s a sleazy way to govern and it shows who they are.

There was a straightforward way to handle this. If the subcommittee did a thorough job and concluded that Tabernacle would be best served by hiring a new secretary for Fire and Public Works, it should have made that recommendation. That idea could have been discussed, assessed and voted on by the committee. Then the position could have been discussed prior to the budget hearing. But this administration doesn’t operate in an honest, straight forward manner.

The second major problem that surfaced at the July 26 meeting was the revelation of the communication breakdown between our emergency service providers and the committee. After all these years of reforming emergency services, there’s still no effective management structure that connects our fire and EMS services with our governing body.

This revelation happened when Committeeman Barton reported that he wasn’t told that the Tabernacle Fire Company and the Tabernacle Rescue Squad were the primary service providers for Woodland Township Fire Company and EMS since July 3, 2021, when those companies stopped operating. Barton said he learned this from the Pine Barrens Tribune, not through any official Tabernacle sources.

Mayor Brown said she didn’t know anything about it either!? That’s astonishing and likely untrue. Mayor Brown is in direct contact with Mr. Sunbury and Mr. Cramer who told the Pine Barrens Tribune that they knew about it by July 8 and even sooner. Administrator Cramer told the Pine Barrens Tribune on July 8 that he knew about the situation in Woodland and he knew that Tabernacle’s Fire Department and the TRS were providing extended ‘mutual aid.’ “I am aware of the situation in Woodland,” he said.

Emergency Management Coordinator and Committeeman Sunbury learned about the situation in Woodland from a separate interview with the Pine Barrens Tribune also on July 8.

It’s hard to believe that Mr. Cramer or Mr. Sunbury wouldn’t alert Mayor Brown and the entire committee. Both are public employees and have a responsibility to keep the Mayor and Committee informed on important matters.

Mayor Brown also should be in direct communication with Committeeman Moore, the committee’s public safety liaison to fire and TRS. The purpose of the liaison is to be the connection between committee and staff. Apparently, liaison Moore was either out of the loop himself (that’s a separate problem) or didn’t bother to inform anybody. No one responded to Committeeman Barton’s statements and questions at the July 26 meeting. Not even Mr. Sunbury or Mr. Cramer who had known about this for weeks. responded. Committeewoman Nancy McGinnis said she also didn’t know about Woodland. But she explained that she’s routinely frozen out of all information.

Did Administrator Cramer and Committeeman and Emergency Management Coordinator Sunbury hide this information from Mayor Brown and the other committee members? I doubt it. They probably told Brown and Moore but froze out Barton and McGinnis. This selective communication about the deployment of Tabernacle’s public safety resources is dysfunctional. Tabernacle citizens elected five people to serve them as committee members. The full committee should know that our emergency service providers are providing extended ‘mutual aid’ to Woodland Township. They should have an explanation from the chiefs of both companies, their administrator and their liaison and OEM coordinator. Based on those explanations, they should determine if Tabernacle’s fire and EMS resources can satisfactorily protect Tabernacle while providing extended ‘mutual aid’ to Woodland.

A straight up public discussion would have addressed the matter and, hopefully, would have informed and assured the public. But that’s not how this administration rolls.

There was a second problem with the committee’s response to the Woodland situation. It’s an old problem that the committee has never wanted to correct.

When Committeeman Barton reported that he wasn’t told about Woodland, he said he had questions for Tabernacle Fire Company Chief Zane. Chief Zane is supposed to be at all township committee meetings because, as Mr. Barton explained, Chief Zane is a township employee. But Chief Zane was absent. No arrangements were made for a substitute. The lack of coverage is another problem, but it’s manageable becauseChief Zane or Deputy Chief Gadjrowicz can attend the monthly meetings.

Mr. Barton’s rationale that Chief Zane should be available to the committee because he’s a Township employee is symptomatic of the bigger problem.

The employment status of Chief Zane is secondary to the accountability that Mr. Barton was talking about. Chief Zane should be available to the committee not because he’s a township employee, but because he’s the head of a critical township unit – the Tabernacle Fire Department.

TRS Chief George Jackson should also be available to the committee. He’s the head of another critical and closely-related township unit – The Tabernacle Rescue Squad. He’s not a township employee but he’s the chief of a contracted service provider.

Robert Sunbury and Administrator Cramer are also township employees. They knew about the Woodland situation weeks before Mr. Barton raised the issue. Both were at the July 26 meeting when Mr. Barton commented on it. Neither responded.

Samuel Moore isn’t a township employee. But he is the Public Safety Liaison. The township website suggest that he plays an important part in the Department of Public Safety. But it’s unclear what he does. It’s clear that as a liaison he’s supposed to link the fire department to the committee. Surely, Chief Zane should’ve informed Mr. Moore about the fire company’s additional duties in Woodland Township. And Mr. Moore should’ve informed the committee. Mr. Moore was at the July 26 meeting when Mr. Barton commented on it. He didn’t respond either.

Employment status is secondary. Accountability is the issue. Messrs. Cramer, Jackson, Moore, Sunbury and Zane all have public safety responsibilities. All of them should be available and accountable to the entire committee.

The problem with Mr. Barton’s demand that Chief Zane explain the Woodland situation is that it shows, yet again, that the committee doesn’t demand accountability from the TRS. Tabernacle’s recent and third reformation of fire services hasn’t changed that.

While Committeeman Barton rightly noted that Chief Zane had some explaining to do, it didn’t occur to him that Chief Jackson also had some explaining to do. The committee had no interest in exercising oversight of the TRS, even though its new duties in Woodland presented identical public concerns as the Tabernacle Fire Company’s new duties.

The committee ignores oversight of the TRS because its priority is to let the TRS maximize reimbursement from insurance companies for the services that it renders to accident victims. TRS does this in Tabernacle, Shamong and any other township where it can render mutual aid. This extended gig in Woodland Township is, in part, another billing opportunity. Neighbors billing neighbors.

When the TRS reports that in 2019 (the latest reports posted on TRS’s website) it responded to more than 200 mutual aid calls to other townships for every one mutual aid call that Tabernacle received from other townships. No one on the committee, except for Mr. Barton, asks if that’s good for Tabernacle residents.

When the TRS took on extra duties in Shamong back in 2013, the committee stonewalled public questions for over a year before they even admitted that TRS was giving free services to Shamong residents while Tabernacle residents were assessed taxes for TRS services and bond costs for the Emergency Service Building (ESB).

When TRS formally merged with Shamong’s emergency squad recently, the committee didn’t publicly ask any questions about how the additional duties might affect Tabernacle residents. Nor did the committee publicly examine the total costs of shared services, other than to charge Shamong $1,691 for Burlington County’s Joint Insurance Fund insurance.

The committee never asks if the TRS’s increasing insurance billings should warrant the payment of rent for its free use of Tabernacle’s ESB. Rent would help defray the costs that Tabernacle taxpayers bear for this building.

The TRS used to argue that it shouldn’t have to pay rent because the fire company didn’t pay rent. Both were independent volunteer companies and should be treated the same, it said. That was always a bogus argument because it ignored the fact that the independent fire company didn’t bill insurance companies while the TRS did.

But now everything has changed. The Tabernacle Fire Department is a township department in a township-owned building. Soon it will have a township secretary using a desk, computer and telephone that were bought and paid for by Tabernacle Township taxpayers. In contrast, the TRS describes itself as a private independent contractor generating increasing revenues out of a publicly-owned building that it pays no rent for.

Organizationally, the TRS and Tabernacle Fire Department are now 180 degrees apart. The Fire Department is owned and managed by Tabernacle Township. It’s located within the township’s Department of Public Safety. But the Department of Public Safety isn’t managed by anyone.

The TRS isn’t listed on Tabernacle’s organizational charts. It’s just a link on the township’s website. TRS has always said that it’s privately owned and managed. It’s not responsible to any township oversight, except to the extent that Administrator Cramer manages its contract.

Neither the subcommittee nor the committee explained why it’s in Tabernacle’s best interest to have two opposite organizational approaches for its emergency providers.

Tabernacle’s response to the Woodland situation shows that it still lacks an effective organization for the management of emergency services. Clearly, the Department of Emergency Management [Robert Sunbury], the Department of Public Safety [Liaison Samuel Moore] and the Department of Administration [Administrator Douglas Cramer] aren’t providing the communication and accountability that’s needed.

It’s difficult not to compare Tabernacle’s current and haphazard organization with its prior plan that established the Department of Public Safety. Under that plan, the township actually hired a public safety director who had extensive experience and expertise in public safety. That person had direct oversight over fire and EMS. That plan was vigorously opposed by the TRS, and ultimately by committee members Rick Franzen, Kim Brown, and Joseph Barton. I suspect that Mr. Barton regrets that vote more than any other that he’s cast in his years on the township committee. The public safety director resigned and the Department of Public Safety became a hollow shell, as shown on the township’s website, is headed by a liaison and houses a fire department whose chief has no direct supervisor.

[Note: We understand that Woodland fire and EMS are up and running.]

Check the township’s website for information about its 7:30pm meeting on Monday, July 23, 2021.