Tabernacle Committee Advertises For Public Safety Director. Tables EMS Decision To Consider Director’s Opinion

chalkboard rfpAt its February 26, 2018 meeting, the township committee tailored its job description for the Public Safety Director (PSD) position and voted 4 to 1 to advertise for applications (Committeeman Rick Franzen voted no). The committee decided that candidates shall be from Burlington County. The hiring was put on a fast track and is expected to be on the committee’s April 23 meeting agenda.

The PSD will handle all administrative issues in place of the committee. One example of these came up in the public comment portion of the meeting. Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS) Captain Steve Cramer reminded the committee that qualified fire company members can provide rescue services and asked if qualified EMS providers could provide fire services.

Captain Cramer’s question is better asked to an experienced PSD director, who can address the practical and logistical issues of this type of question. Committee members don’t have expertise in these matters. Besides, the committee meets so infrequently (sometimes only once a month) and has many other issues on its agenda, that it’s not a good forum to address these nuts and bolts questions.

Committeeman Franzen voted against advertising for a public safety director because the PSD would report directly to the committee, except for budgetary matters. For budgetary  matters, the PSD would report to the administrator. Committeeman Franzen thought that the PSD should report to the township administrator for all purposes.

While the chain of reporting is important, it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. If experience shows that reporting needs to be changed, it can be changed later when specific problems and solutions are identified.

At this point, our current organization of emergency services needs to be changed. It makes no sense. The emergency management coordinator reports directly to the committee. The fire chief reports to the township administrator. The TRS chief is independent. He’s supposed to communicate with the administrator but often communicates with the committee behind the scenes.

The looseness and lack of accountability in the official structure enabled the TRS to make repeated, secret decisions. One example, among too many, is the TRS’s agreement with Shamong Township to use Tabernacle equipment and resources to provide free services to Shamong residents in exchange for the TRS’s receipt of their insurance billings.

Our administrator, who is supposed to be the liaison with the TRS, said he didn’t know about it. Our committee members said they didn’t know about it. Having someone in charge of the administration (not the operations) of all emergency service units hopefully will correct this problem.

Also at the February 26, 2018 meeting, the committee opened discussion on how to formalize its relationship with its EMS provider. Currently, the TRS is our EMS provider. The two options listed on the agenda were to advertise a Request for Proposals (RFP) or to issue a contract directly, presumably to the TRS.

The RFP option would be a public advertisement to procure EMS services from qualified providers. It was not discussed in detail. But if it’s like most RFPs, it would detail the minimum standards, capabilities and terms that the township requires.

It would also allow alternative proposals, as the TRS’s November 2013 “Proposal to Provide Emergency Medical Services to Southampton Township” did, when it was submitted in response to Southampton’s RFP.

An RFP process typically includes an impartial evaluation procedure. This is basic to public contracts, but has always been lacking for EMS services in Tabernacle. As mentioned below, committee members Brown and Franzen don’t want to do an impartial evaluation.

The contract option was a straight up contract with the TRS. There’d be no solicitation of information; no comparison with other providers and no evaluation procedure, impartial or otherwise. The committee would just sign a contract with the TRS.

Committee members Lee, Yates and Barton wanted to table the discussion on the RFP/contract until the public safety director was hired, so that the committee could consider the PSD’s opinion.

I’ve previously written that tabling was often a way to avoid making a decision. But tabling the discussion of the RFP/contract, in this case, makes sense. The public safety director is required to have expertise and experience in emergency services. The PSD will help the committee discuss the details of the relationship with the EMS provider. Because the hiring of the PSD is scheduled to be on the April 23 meeting agenda, the delay would be short.

Committee members Franzen and Brown favored contracting with the TRS using the draft contract that had been prepared in August 2016. I don’t know why that draft contract wasn’t finalized. But I know it strongly favored the TRS over taxpayers and had a lot of holes in it (see August 21, 2016, TTJ POST).

Deputy Mayor Lee rightly pointed out that the draft contract is incomplete and outdated. He also said that some kind of vetting of the EMS provider was needed, but it was premature to make a decision about a contract or a RFP without the input of a public safety director.

I think it’s irresponsible to enter into a public contract with an organization without the proper vetting of an RFP process. Now I’m not saying that I want an RFP to go out and get someone else because we have a 45 year relationship with TRS. But I think in fairness, it’s important to go through the process like we do with any other professional we hire. So I think it’s irresponsible of us to make any decisions about a contract or a RFP process until we get the person [PSD] we’re going to hire, hired and they can do this work because it’s their responsibility.

Proceeding straight to a contract is foolish because the committee doesn’t seem to have a clear understanding of what it needs or what it wants. In order to reach a fair contract, the committee has to agree on the details of the level of EMS service that it wants. It also has to understand the financial details of the cost of those services, including ownership of equipment, rent, billing revenue and compensation programs, to mention just a few. None of that information has ever been publicly discussed by the TRS.

Proceeding straight to a contract would just continue the committee’s history of catering to the TRS. For those TTJ readers who forget how much the committee has bent over backwards for the TRS, here’s a reminder.

  •  The committee gave TRS the exclusive franchise to insurance billings. It did this surreptitiously, off agenda, after an executive session.
  • The committee allowed TRS to hide its insurance revenues from the public by accepting private “chalkboard presentations” from the TRS in order for the committee to perform its legally required financial review of the billings.
  •  Although the TRS insists that it’s a private organization, the committee gives it cash contributions, free rent and free insurance. TRS also got free fuel until 2018.
  •  The committee looked the other way when questions were repeatedly asked about the TRS’s contract with Shamong to provide free ambulance service for Shamong residents using Tabernacle resources.
  •  The committee ignored the TRS’s bid to provide service to Southampton Township and never questioned how it would impact service in Tabernacle.
  •  The committee hasn’t required the TRS to explain or to provide any information on the TRS’s compensation plan, even though former Mayor Lee requested it.
  • Until January 2018, the committee didn’t require the TRS to provide its roster as it does the fire company, Community Emergency Response Team and Local Emergency Planning Committee

Committeewoman Brown gave a lot of seemingly different justifications for contracting directly with the TRS, instead of taking a closer look and making an informed decision. But they all boiled down to her belief that Tabernacle and the TRS are part of one big family; and it would be unfair to ask the TRS for information or solicit proposals from other EMS providers.

I disagree with Committeewoman Brown’s theory about “family.” My friends and family haven’t pulled shenanigans like the TRS has. If they had, I wouldn’t reward them with a no-bid, no-questions-asked contract.

Here’s the extended version of what Committeewoman Brown and TRS President Jamie Wood said regarding their preference for the contract, rather than an RFP. Committeeman Franzen said he agreed with Mrs. Brown.

1. Committeewoman Brown first said that Tabernacle should enter into the contract that was drafted in August 2016 because it might be a long time before a public safety director is hired.

If you’re going to wait [until a public safety director is selected] then you should enter into the contract that’s been sitting for two years with the squad….Because we don’t have a time frame for when we’re going to hire a public safety director, I think it’s unfair to us and them to [not] have a contract so it’s spelled out what’s expected.

Deputy Mayor Lee commented that because the draft contract has to be updated it would take additional time to do this.

Mayor Barton then discussed the schedule to advertise the PSD position. Because Committeewoman Brown and Deputy Mayor Lee will be absent at the April 9 meeting, Mayor Barton calculated that the hiring will be on the committee’s April 23 meeting agenda.

Also, Tabernacle has had a decades-long relationship with the TRS without any contract. The TRS has never complained about any unfairness related to the lack of a contract. As I recall, TRS resisted entering into a contract. Surely a few months more won’t be a burden.

2. Committeewoman Brown then suggested the township execute a short- term contract with the TRS so its members won’t think they’re being fired or disrespected.

If you have a draft contract that you can just update and fill in the blanks and it will make everybody happy why not do it?  And if you have to revisit it next year when you’re revisiting all of the contracts for both emergency services, do it then….But at least in fairness, let people have some kind of comfort zone that an RFP isn’t going out next month and that the volunteers have just been fired….I’m just saying you’ve got to understand what it looks like from the other side. It looks like we’re going after our volunteers.

That’s wrong in so many ways.

First, her statement that people are “going after our volunteers” or “firing our volunteers” is shameless, fear mongering. Neither the RFP nor the contract would fire our volunteers as Ms. Brown said. A no-bid contract is the option that the TRS wanted. A RFP would still allow the TRS to submit a proposal to Tabernacle, just as it did to Southampton Township in 2013.

Everyone recognizes that EMS services and the people who provide them are critically important. But no EMS organization can take substantial public subsidies and a lucrative billing franchise without transparency, accountability and fairness to the taxpayers who fund them. Committeewoman Brown has wrongly equated the committee’s responsibility to govern with the false idea that the committee is “going after our volunteers.”

The committee, is simply doing what it said it would do when it dissolved the fire district.  It is moving to:

…centralize the delivery and management of all emergency services in order to promote the professional, efficient, cooperative and effective delivery of all emergency service in the Township.

Committeewoman Brown was a principal spokesperson to the State Local Finance Board when, in exchange for dissolving the fire district, the township committed to centralize emergency services to justify the dissolution of the fire district.

Like Committeewoman Brown, TRS Chief Jackson, his family and TRS President Jamie Wood and other TRS members who signed the petition to dissolve the fire district also should not be surprised that the committee is trying to improve the management and delivery of emergency services.

Committeewoman Brown’s new-found concern about firing our volunteers wasn’t an issue when she voted to dissolve the fire district, which led to the demise of Tabernacle’s oldest emergency services organization, the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company, and the loss of 10 volunteer, interior firefighters.

3. Committeewoman Brown said that the fire company and the TRS are the same type of organization. So, just as we have a contract with the fire company, so we should also have a contract with the TRS.

They’re the same entity, just in a different service. They both do the same thing. They’re both volunteers, they both show up.

The two organizations are very different in ways that are critical to their relationship to Tabernacle Township.

First, by law, the fire company is an instrumentality of the municipality. In other words, the fire company is actually a part of Tabernacle. So, if I submit an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to the fire company, it’s subject to OPRA and has to respond to it.

The TRS isn’t part of Tabernacle Township. According to state Health Department records, TRS is a private organization owned by Chief George Jackson. Unlike the fire company, TRS is not subject to OPRA and isn’t required to disclose its records.

Second, TRS was given the insurance billing franchise and also receives large subsidies from Tabernacle Township, even though it’s a private organization. The amounts are so large that TRS is actually building surplus and paying its “volunteers.” Yet Tabernacle Township has had to raise taxes to fund its operations, including the fire company.

Committeewoman Brown knows that these organizations are significantly different. Chief Jackson and TRS President Jamie Wood have publicly emphasized how different these two organizations are when they wanted to hide the TRS roster, hide the TRS billing information and hide the TRS compensation program.

Committeewoman Brown knows that the TRS is a private organization. She said so.

…they’re [TRS] a private non-profit 501C3, I believe they are, organization so they’re not subject to OPRA, so once we take that document it becomes an OPRA-able document and it’s not fair to the non-profit that isn’t OPRA-able for us to make them OPRA-able.

She also knows that TRS receives the lucrative billing revenues and substantial public subsidies because, as a committeewoman, she voted for them.

For all that Ms. Brown knows about the TRS’s income, it’s status as a private organization and the significant differences between it and the fire company, it’s wrong for her to say that we should give TRS a contract just like the fire company. The committee should make an informed decision that’s based on the particulars and implement good policy for Tabernacle.

4. Committeewoman Brown said that RFP’s are for professionals like engineers and lawyers, not for EMS providers.

I get what you’re saying about RFP’s for the attorney, the engineer, things like that.  How can you group EMS with such professionals?….Because those are paid professionals that are earning their living providing their services…They [TRS] are volunteers….When you put out an RFP, it looks like you don’t have faith in the people that live in your town that are providing the [emergency] service.

This is just wrong. RFP’s are commonplace for various services, including EMS services. Southampton Township issued an RFP for EMS services

I expect Committeewoman Brown knows this because her father has been Southampton’s mayor for decades. I also expect she knows that the TRS submitted an extensive, detailed proposal in response to Southampton’s RFP. The TRS probably discussed its Southampton proposal with Tabernacle committee members. Shame on them if they didn’t. I know it wasn’t discussed at a public meeting. Shame on them for that, too.

The idea that the committee should award a contract involving roughly $500,000 primarily to show faith and respect to the Squad leaves taxpayers out in the cold.

5. Finally, Committeewoman Brown said that the committee shouldn’t get the opinion of the public safety director because unless, they live in Tabernacle, they shouldn’t judge our “volunteers.”

If we hire someone who doesn’t live in Tabernacle, I have an issue with them deciding whether we should go out to RFP for someone other than our volunteers.…I’m just saying that I’m not comfortable with them [PSD] throwing their opinion out there. At the end of the day, these are our residents and neighbors.

The weakness of this concern is obvious: A properly vetted PSD should be able to offer an objective, informed opinion, regardless of where in Burlington County they live, just as other professionals.

Committeewoman Brown has never had a problem accepting professional opinions from any of Tabernacle’s other non-resident professionals such as Attorney Peter Lange, Engineer Dante Guzzi, Certified Financial Officer Terry Henry, Appraiser Jay Renwick or Construction Official Tom Boyd. She shouldn’t have a problem accepting a professional opinion from a non-resident public safety director.

Mayor Barton responded appropriately to Committeewoman Brown’s concern.

I don’t think that person [PSD] would make that decision….I would like to have the benefit of their opinion. But this committee will make the final decision.

TRS President Jamie Wood, on behalf of the organization, gave a lengthy and aggressive comment against the RFP.

You’re going to say that [Tabernacle’s] like a family. Then you should treat us as such and not threaten to take us to RFP. I can’t take it any more. I absolutely can’t stand coming here and waiting for the other shoe to drop. If you want to get rid of us, get rid of us. Don’t threaten us anymore.

Okay, I understand that TRS is upset about having to face the questions that have dogged it over the past few years. But all of these problems have been self-inflicted. TRS can’t be as secretive and divisive as it has been without raising questions.

  • Why does TRS do its public business through secret deals with the committee instead of in public?
  • Why didn’t TRS ask to have its billing proposal placed on the committee’s public agenda as new business instead of allowing it to be handled as an unlisted item after the public had been cleared from the building for an executive session?
  • Why did TRS privately negotiate its free rent deal for the publicly financed Emergency Services Building, instead of transacting it in public?
  • Why did the TRS present it’s required review of insurance revenues through private “chalkboard presentations” which were designed not to leave a paper trail.
  • Why didn’t TRS publicly tell the committee that it was submitting a proposal to provide EMS services in Southampton Township?
  • Why didn’t TRS publicly tell the committee or Administrator Cramer that it had contracted with Shamong Township to provide free EMS services to Shamong residents using Tabernacle resources?
  • Why didn’t the TRS return the overpayments that Tabernacle gave it when the actual amount of uncollected fees turned out to be far less than Tabernacle and the TRS thought they would be? After the $70,000 annual payment was finally adjusted to the actual costs, why did the TRS initially ask for more?
  • Why won’t TRS discuss the disparity between the revenues that it receives from Tabernacle’s subsidies and insurance billings compared with the taxes that Tabernacle property owners pay? Surely, TRS sees that these revenues allowed it to build a surplus while Tabernacle has had to raise taxes? Surely the TRS knows that no other township allows its EMS squad to keep all of the insurance revenues.
  • Why was TRS so adamant about hiding its roster to the township when the county Joint Insurance Fund (JIF) says townships should have EMS rosters to assure that the volunteers have insurance coverage?
  • Why won’t the TRS discuss the details of its compensation program, which is funded through the insurance billing program?

As these questions show, the TRS’s official transactions with Tabernacle Township haven’t displayed the high levels of honesty, fairness or respect that usually are part of the concept of “family.”

It is encouraging to see that some committee members are considering a different official relationship with the EMS provider, possibly designed through an RFP, which would be more business-like, more open and fairer than the existing relationship. Other committee members still cling to the ideal of a “family,” which, if it ever existed, was obliterated by the flood of insurance revenues.

Setting the question of “family” aside, the TRS shouldn’t feel threatened by the possibility of an RFP. The TRS was quite capable of submitting a response to Southampton’s RFP. And it didn’t seem to bother the TRS that Southampton already had its own “family” of EMS providers.

The next township meeting will be held March 12, 2018, at 7:30PM at town hall.